Road Worrier: If you have public records, it’s your duty to share them

If you’re a local or state agency official in North Carolina, open government is part of your job description.

You may be a police chief. You may be a planning director. You may be in charge of our state public health network.

But you’re also a custodian. A core provision of our public records law makes you answerable to anyone who wants to read a public document in your office or on your computer server.

Yes, public servant. You.

Not your boss, your lawyer or your PR person. You.

“Every custodian of public records shall permit any record in the custodian’s custody to be inspected and examined at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision by any person.” That’s what it says in General Statutes 132-6(a).

The Road Worrier mentions this because of a McCrory administration policy that could weaken the bonds that hold individual custodians of public records directly accountable to citizens.

Besides, this is Sunshine Week. It’s a good time to reinforce the bedrock American values of an informed electorate and a transparent government.

Business people use our public records and open meetings laws every day. So do scientists and mischief-makers, lawyers and students. Don’t worry: When you ask for government files, you don’t have to explain why you want them.

In 1999, a trio of political gadflies in Asheville were pestering Buncombe County agencies repeatedly for public records. When the county manager decreed that all such requests must be filed directly with her, the three men sued for the right to deal directly with the document custodians. They won.

“The law by its own express terms does not permit for the interposition of a ‘gatehouse’ or ‘overseer’ between members of the public who desire access to public records and custodians of public records,” Superior Court Judge Loto Caviness ruled in the Dawes v. Buncombe case.

My reason for wanting to see public documents is my job as a reporter. I report stories based on campaign finance records, court filings, construction contracts, crash reports, government studies, presentations at public meetings, internal memos, and emails between public officials and private citizens.

When I think I know what engineer or office manager has the files I need, the law says I can ask that person directly. But sometimes I ask the agency’s public-information officer instead – if I’m not sure where to find the documents directly, or if I figure this just might be the easiest way to get what I’m after.

Now Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration says we no longer have a choice.

A Department of Transportation official recently chided me for asking a DOT rail official for rail documents and a DOT civil rights official for civil rights documents. She instructed me to comply with the rules laid out in a six-page McCrory policy memo posted on the DOT website.

“Public records requests shall be directed to a department public information officer (PIO),” said the document, provided by Sophia A. Spencer, DOT’s public records manager.

“In the case of the NCDOT, that would be me,” Spencer added by email last week. “This policy is not to impede on the ability of citizens to request public records, but is actually beneficial to both the citizen and NCDOT.”

Whatever benefits there may be, this gatekeeper rule runs contrary to the letter and the custodial spirit of our public records law – and to that 1999 Buncombe County ruling by Judge Caviness.

“I still consider that to be the law,” Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association, said Monday of the Caviness decision. “It makes sense, and it is most efficient for members of the public to be able to request records from individual officials who actually have them.”

Senior spokespersons for DOT and McCrory did not respond to requests for comment.

When public information officers take this public records burden upon themselves, the results can be mixed. A funny thing happened last Nov. 25, when McCrory’s press office provided documents in response to two of my requests.

I had asked for one batch of records 14 days earlier – and the other one, 14 months earlier.