Cornelius resident Kurt Naas on Monday won the N.C. Open Government Coalition’s inaugural Sunshine Award for Citizens after he used public records to inform the debate over widening Interstate 77 north of uptown.
Naas filed his public records request on April 4, 2014. What he found drew plenty of attention: Tolls on the roadway could cost $20 or more for a Charlotte-to-Mooresville round trip.
He told the Observer how he unearthed the documents, his advice for others, and how the system could be improved:
Q. How long did it take to get the records?
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A. Over two months.
Q. Why was the information so important to your cause?
A. The data were central to the case being made for private toll lanes, yet had never been made public. We were basically being asked to trust that this was in the public interest. Yet, as I looked into what was publicly available, it was clear this was not the case. I needed the data to verify that.
Q. What surprised you about the process?
A. How difficult it was to get the information. I sent a written request and several follow-up emails, made phone calls and even contacted the N.C. Department of Justice for help. After two months of nothing, I contacted a TV reporter and she was able to get (his request fulfilled) in a day.
Q. Do you think the state should change its open records law in any way?
A. Yes. First, there needs to be a government advocate for the citizens. If a government agency fails to respond, the public should have recourse to a public advocate who has the proper authority to force an agency to comply with the law. Right now, a citizen’s only recourse is to file suit. That is expensive and time-consuming.
Second, there should be an individual with clear responsibility for handling these requests. I was vectored off in a number of directions. If everyone has responsibility, no one does.
Third, each request should be logged and assigned a control number. This is done at the federal level.
Q. What advice would you give to other citizen activists?
A. Don’t give up. Shine a media spotlight on the issue if you have to. Governance done in the dark is rarely good government.