8/2/2018 3:40:00 PM Public records: property of the people?
Over three months have passed since Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham received her first public records request for email communications relating to town business; to date, none have been fulfilled.
by PATTI STOKES
SUMMERFIELD - According to North Carolina General Statute 132-1, public records (documents, emails, recordings, etc.) and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government (i.e., elected officials or public officers) "pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business" are property of the people.
As we have written previously, on June 19 the Northwest Observer submitted a public records request for Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham's town business-related emails dating back to when Dunham took office on Dec. 12. Although Summerfield Town Attorney Bill Hill has confirmed the Northwest Observer's public records request was both valid and complete, neither that request nor any of the other requests the Town of Summerfield has processed for Dunham's emails in the last three months have been fulfilled as of the writing of this article.
Hill sent an email on Aug. 1 to those who have submitted requests for Dunham's emails, in which he stated, "By now, you should have received a response to your public records requests from Gail Dunham. Regrettably, these responses may well lead you to believe or presume facts which are not accurate. For that reason, as the town attorney, I feel compelled to correct these inaccuracies and will attempt to do so.
"Please note that I am not copied on any of the emails (from Dunham to those making public records requests)," Hill continued. "They were sent without my review, input or approval. The responses contend there are deficiencies in your requests. However, those contentions are inconsistent with the law. In other words, your requests are valid in my opinion, and the claimed deficiencies are not a basis for refusal to answer.
"In addition, the town has no access to Gail Dunham's emails from the firstname.lastname@example.org address or any other personal address..."
This week we reached out to citizens in northwest Guilford County, including past and present town council members, and asked if they felt elected officials' communications regarding the business of the communities they represent should be considered public record - and if so, should there be any consequences when those communications are not provided upon request. The following are some of the responses we received...
"Without a doubt, any and all emails/texts/tweets/etc. involving town-related business between an elected official and any recipient need to be part of the public record," Oak Ridge Town Council member Jim Kinneman said. "As an elected official I fully understand, accept and support that anything I say in an email is part of the public record. Without this level of transparency we all lose.
"With electronic records the time period that is considered 'reasonable' should be fairly short, i.e., a week or two. Keeping track of these emails is easy - I try to always cc someone on town staff. This accomplishes two things: 1). It makes it part of the town email record and 2). It keeps town staff informed about my discussions with citizens and others. To that point, this email (between Kinneman and the Northwest Observer) was cc'd to town staff.
"If an elected official doesn't comply... removal from office would be a bit extreme, but there does need to be a negative sanction for not providing the records in a timely and complete form."
Former Summerfield Town Council member Gary Brown agreed that town business-related communications should be accessible to the public, and should an elected official not make public records accessible, there should be consequences.
"As 'public servants,' all elected officials should be expected to fully comply with both the letter and spirit of the law," Brown said.
"Yes, communications should be public record whether they are written on paper or sent through email or texts," Rex Riley wrote on Northwest Observer's Facebook page. "If they are discussing official business on behalf of or will affect the public they represent, the communications should be public. I must add if a person is doing right they will not have a problem with communication being public. There should be a set time that the records are available..."
Dena Barnes, Summerfield mayor pro tem, said public records in written or recorded form should be provided upon request. "If a council member has to use their personal email, they are still responsible for fulfilling public records requests and I have done this in the past."
As to consequences for not fulfilling records requests, Barnes said, "There should be recourse to make an elected official comply with providing public records requests if they do not provide them. When they take office they have a responsibility to the public."
Speaking specifically to Dunham not fulfilling her records requests, Summerfield resident Whitney Lee wrote on Northwest Observer's Facebook page, "Her (Gail Dunham's) negligence in performing her mayoral duties portrays distrust in the eyes of the citizens and recourse should be taken."
Look for more responses next week. Want to weigh in on this issue? Email email@example.com.