Saturday, September 24, 2016

More Arrows for the Citizen Activist's Quiver

A few weeks ago, fellow Herald columnist Eric Rowell wrote a piece on how to make a public records request.  From what I understand it has been well received with several people following up to get more information.  That is a great thing for helping ensure more transparency in local government.

I’ve previously called the records request the sharpest arrow in the activist’s quiver, but it’s not the only arrow. There are many others those interested in local government can use to stay on top of what’s happening in their community.  Several people over the years have asked me “where do I get ideas for all the pieces I write “  at Lake Norman Publications and at my blog.  The answer is very often “from using these tools.”

This week I thought I would pass along a few more of these tools and provide an example of how they are used.

Tool #1:  Google Alerts – Google allows anyone to set up alerts on any topic using key words.  Anytime a story appears anywhere in cyberspace you’ll get a daily email.  Set up a few alerts with the name of your town and one for each elected official.  You won’t get overwhelmed with emails but when something happens you will know. If you save these emails, you have an easy reference to all that’s been written on the subject.

Tool #2:  Town Agendas – All the local towns keep their agendas online.  Look at the agendas for the Planning Board and Design Review Board for early warning signs of new development projects.  By the time things show up on the Commissioners’ agenda it’s usually too late.  Commissioners also discuss important details at so called “pre meetings” and dinner meetings.  Know that whenever a majority of Commissioners are present, the meeting is open to the public so you can attend if you want.

Tool #3:  Online Public Records – Almost as important as the public records request are the available online records systems.  In the old days one had to practically be a trained detective to acquire information.  Now, so much is available onljne that the challenge is sifting through it all.  Property records can be found at Mecklenburg Polaris.  Business records can be found on the NC Secretary of State site at

So, let’s take an example from the development world, something that impacts almost all of us in this fast growing region.  What should you do if you hear around town or from a neighbor that some new development is going in on the property around the corner?

First, go to Polaris3g at and look up the property.  You can search for it or find it using the map.  Look at the information there.  If the property is something long planned for development it very well may be owned by an LLC – meaning you can’t see the real owner’s name.

Never fear, the NC Secretary of State website will have what you need.  Go to and look up the LLC.  Often the officers of the LLC will be listed or at the least the registered agent for the company.  The names listed here will often be developers or real estate attorneys.

You can also look at the information on file at the Register of Deeds via the links in Polaris3g to find more information on who may be involved with the property and potential development.

With these names in hand you’ll better be able to understand how the information in a records request all fits together if you choose to go that route.  Do this a few times on a few developments and you’ll realize you often see the same names, over, and over, and over again.  After a little practice, you’ll realize those steps only took a few minutes and you’ll be asking better questions of your town hall.

Mix these steps together with regularly reading your Google alerts and scanning the agendas for your town meetings – maybe even attend a few in person, and you’ll soon be surprised at what you learn.

This post first appeared in the Herald Weekly at

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