It's now been 3 1/2 months since Summerfield Mayor Gail Dunham received her first public records request for copies of email communications relating to town business since she was sworn into office on Dec. 12; at least 10 similar requests have been processed by the town clerk since then, with none yet fulfilled.
In this issue we share more of the comments we received recently after we reached out to citizens in northwest Guilford County, including past and present town council members, and asked 1) Do you feel elected officials' communications regarding the business of the communities they represent should be considered public records?; and 2) If so, should there be any consequences when those communications are not provided upon request?
Oak Ridge Mayor Spencer Sullivan responded, "It is a fact that both the public records laws and public meeting laws define elected officials' responsibilities to the public in the execution of their work. Any elected official must accept those responsibilities upon taking office, and act in accordance with both the intent and spirit of those laws. It is critical to maintaining the trust and confidence of our citizens, and as mayor I am vigilant in assuring our council does so.
"Our town council and staff make every effort to respond very promptly and complete any PRR we receive, and ensure we are in full compliance," Sullivan continued, explaining the town has a standard form that those submitting a PRR are asked to complete.
"But it is a very simple form that asks which records are being sought, what media form is desired, and for a contact name and phone number - the reason we ask for a name and phone number is twofold: in case we need to clarify what records are being requested; and to notify the requester the records are ready to be picked up.
"Everything we do on behalf of the town is subject to public records requests (with specific exemptions, as outlined by N.C.G.S. 132)," Sullivan continued. "...As part of the required training for elected officials that we go through with UNC School of Government, we were instructed on how to handle our communications and that has been reinforced by our attorney."
"100 percent yes to both questions!" Summerfield resident John Van Kemp responded.
Oak Ridge resident Mike Stone, a former town council member, responded: "All, all, ALL emails and other communications' records are public records and should be available to anyone who requests them. I'll add that all means all emails, voicemail, texts, and even social media posts that pertain to town business... If someone is concerned about keeping their discussions and communications private, they do not need to be elected officials or serving in a volunteer capacity for the town - or - if they don't want their communications public, they need to learn the art of verbal communications.
"I believe that all records should be turned over to the town attorney within 72 hours of the request," Stone continued. "That's a fast turn-around, I know, but I maintained every email and text so that as soon as it was requested I could pull the information and forward it. It's irresponsible as an elected official to not have the public's records in order.
"My personal opinion is that no public records request should take more than 10 business days (three days to assemble and send to the attorney and seven days for him/her to review and forward to the town manager so it can be presented to the requestor). If a request for public records goes unfulfilled for more than 15 business days, I could easily support a law or ordinance that removes/suspends the elected official, employee or volunteer from any town activities until such time as they comply with the law/ordinance."
Stone added that the town/city should also do its part to respond to citizens seeking information via a public records request.
"I've made requests for information only to be told where I can go to get the information myself," he said. "I'm sorry, but my tax dollars pay for employees to fill my request, not provide instructions on how to search the town's website for the information."
Responding via the Northwest Observer's Facebook page, Judi Bastion said, "...Town employees and elected officials need to use established means of communication. Since there have been numerous record requests in the past and (Summerfield) candidates ran on this issue, transparency that was promised needs to be delivered."
Oak Ridge Town Council member George McClellan had this to say: "All communications pertaining to the town's business are a matter of public record regardless of whether it is between me and the staff, me and another council member, or between me and a constituent."
With regard to any recourse for not fulfilling a public records request, McClellan said it should be "Whatever the law allows. Whenever our clerk informs me of a public records request I do my best to have everything requested to her within 48 hours."
Stokesdale Town Council member Frank Bruno responded, "If a member of council is discussing town business with a member of the public then this should be information that is made public if and when requested.
"As far as making these available, there should be a reasonable time to reply as long as the request is not vague. Specific requests for a specific item should be responded to within a week of when the request is made and the proper paperwork is filled out. There may be times where the request needs to be reviewed by the town attorney to make sure the requested information can be released to the public, but this should not take an unreasonable time to accomplish," Bruno continued.
"What I mean by a vague request is if someone requests all of the emails that have been written by a specific council member without specifying what the subject of the emails are. While this could be provided, it would take an inordinate amount of time to accomplish and we do not have the manpower or budget to have an employee spend their time on this type of request.
"As far as a penalty for not supplying records, deleting, or being selective in what is provided, there should be a penalty imposed on the individual or town that does this. As far as what that should be, I'm not sure how you could impose the penalty. I know the person requesting the records can file a court action to get them, but there doesn't seem to be any penalty to recover attorney fees. You could censure that member of council, but they would still be able to conduct their council business. Repeated offenses could be dealt with more harshly, maybe with a monetary penalty - but who would impose the penalty and who would collect it?
"The best penalty is imposed at the voting booth, by citizens not re-electing those individuals."
"Absolutely, emails relating to public business should be considered public record," said Oak Ridge Town Council member Doug Nodine. "The only exception might be when the official is negotiating on a personnel matter or the purchase of real property.
"With respect to recourse I am not sure what you have in mind, but public flogging might be on the extreme side," Nodine added. "Of course, the ultimate recourse should take place at the voting booth."
And Oak Ridge Town Council member Ann Schneider had this to say: "Transparency in government is essential to maintaining trust and keeping communication open with the residents we serve. I fully support both our open meeting laws and our public records laws that make all aspects of our work accessible to the public.
"Having served on the Historic Preservation Commission for several years, I brought experience complying with both of these laws to my current role on the Oak Ridge Town Council," Schneider continued. "While on the HPC, I had no difficulty complying with even a broad-ranging public records request (PRR), since the majority of my emails included town staff. The others were easily located using simple search tools within my email program. I have also submitted a PRR myself at the state level. I was grateful that my request was treated seriously and responded to promptly - it really increased my confidence in our state government.
"Public servants at all levels need to take their responsibilities seriously. There are already some consequences in place for those who don't. For example, PRRs that aren't fulfilled in a timely manner can lead to media attention and an erosion of confidence - as we are already seeing. I understand that North Carolina statutes also allow residents to sue in civil court when PRRs aren't fulfilled in a reasonable time period, but I would hope that this won't ever be necessary in our northwest community."
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