This guest post by Eric Rowell first appeared in the Herald Weekly at HuntersvilleHerald.com
Have you ever been unable to find an answer to a question you had about your local government? Have you ever wondered what official town business your elected officials were discussing via email? Have you ever wondered how much in travel, lodging and meal expenses your elected officials were charging when attending out of state conferences? I used to have similar questions that kept me up at night until I discovered Chapter 132 of the North Carolina General Statutes on Public Records. Now I can send off a records request in no time at all! By the end of this piece hopefully you too will be able to quickly and easily request the answers to these and many more questions from your local government.
A public record in NC is defined in NCGS §132-1(a) as all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of NC government or its subdivisions. §132-1(b) goes on to outline the position that public records are property of the people so the people should be able to obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise provided by law.
The default position outlined in §132-1(b) means that if any public agency denies your request for records they have to specify an applicable exemption – simply denying or ignoring a request is insufficient. For example, if your local police department declines your request for incident reports related to crime statistics cited by them in a report to the local town board ostensibly because they are protecting victims of crime, you can respond by citing to the exemptions outlined in §132-1.4(c) which specifies information that must be provided.
Drafting a records request in NC does not require you to hire a lawyer or have any special expertise. The law is designed to provide everyone easy access to government records in a timely manner. A request can be made orally or in writing and there is no specific format a written request has to take, i.e., it can be a simple email or even a handwritten note. You do not have to disclose the purpose or motive for your request pursuant to §132-6(b). And you do not have to appear in person to obtain records if those records exist in an electronic medium pursuant to §132-6.2(a). Most records can easily be scanned and emailed these days, although some historical documents may necessitate an in-person inspection. §132-9 even provides legal remedies for anyone denied access to public records.
Chapter 132 is worth reading in full and can easily be found with a quick internet search or at the NC General Assembly website. Two other great online resources for anyone wanting more information on records requests or government transparency are the UNC School of Government and the Sunshine Center of the NC Open Government Coalition. The Coates’ Canons blog at the UNC School of Government is a great place to start any local government related research and their staff are always willing to answer questions via email or phone.
Open record laws help to keep all levels of government accountable. But it takes an engaged citizenry to take advantage of these laws. If you have ever wanted to submit a records request but didn’t know how, I will gladly provide any interested reader a records request template upon request. Most of my requests are directed towards Huntersville (and have all been timely responded to thanks in part to Town Clerk Janet Pierson), but the same laws apply in Davidson and Cornelius as well. Sometimes you will be surprised what information a simple records request can uncover, but you’ll never know until you ask.