Asheville city government’s decision-making should happen in the sunlight. At least, that’s the principle Liz Harper brings to her work as the city’s public records officer. Anyone who has asked for public information about permit violations, purchase orders or police reports since October 2020 has been assisted by Harper.
Until recently, Harper kept track of records requests through a spreadsheet and meticulously labeled email inbox. “I’m a very detail-oriented person, so it works well,” she says of her organizational prowess. Harper earned a Master of Science in Information from the University of Michigan School of Information, and she says her background in archives and records management is ideal for locating and sharing city documents.
But under Harper’s guidance, Asheville debuted a new public records request portal this summer. Not only does the software consolidate the city’s workflow, she says, but it provides easier access for citizens requesting open data.
(On Sept. 1, Harper will return to her previous role as special and digital collections librarian at Western Carolina University, which she held from 2016-20. Asheville’s job posting for the public records officer position is available at avl.mx/a9v.)
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
What does a public records officer do?
The North Carolina General Statutes spell out 20 different things that constitute what a public record is: maps, documents, whatever. But I describe public records as anything that’s created in the transaction of public business: documents people write, meeting minutes, emails, text messages that employees send that are conducting public business. Really, it’s any kind of tangible document that is created by a city employee. My job is to take the request, see where best to fulfill it, get the records if they exist and then give them back to the requester.
Are people allowed to see any public records they want? Or are there limits on what’s available?
There’s only some information of a personnel record that’s publicly available. Criminal investigations or sensitive things like that are not public record. But by and large, if it exists as a document of record, it is requestable. We’re not required to create new records in response to a request, although we often do, because we want to share that information.
I imagine you working while surrounded by musty, old boxes and mold.
No, no, no. I certainly have! But not here, thank God. Most everything I work with is in Google Docs.
Are all of Asheville’s public records digitized?
We have not retroactively digitized everything. For example, if somebody wants City Council minutes from the ’70s, we’ve got a vault with all of the minutes, all of the resolutions. But at this point, I would say 99% of record requests are for recent documents, so they’re digital.
In your experience, which public records are the most frequently requested?
If someone is interested in developing or purchasing a property, I get requests like “At this address, are there open fire code violations? Are there building code permit violations?” I do a lot of that working with the Development Services Department and Fire Department.
We get a lot of records requests for emails around the City Council — basically, anything newsworthy. The Police Department gets a lot of requests as well. Those can be anything from personnel records to emails. A lot of what people request isn’t public record, in that case.
Most often, these records contain both public and not-public information, and the city has tools in place to easily access the public portions. For example, emails that discuss the specifics of an investigation would not be public record. But any information that is public record about that case is available using the Police to Citizen tool. Similarly, use-of-force reports that are submitted internally are not public record, as they are considered personnel records. However, the department does put the public portion of these reports to the open data portal.
In July, the Legal Services Department introduced a new public records requesting portal. How will that make information more accessible?
We moved to a software system called NextRequest. People will be able to go to the portal and see what public records requests have already been made. Previously, that information was public record, but we didn’t have a software system organizing it. I just had a really elaborate Excel spreadsheet. Anyone who would like to see that, I sent it to them.
But with the new software, people will be able to see what’s been requested and see any of the records that have been supplied in response. It will also be easier to make requests, and people will be able to make requests anonymously.
How would you rank Asheville when it comes to government transparency?
Asheville is definitely a leader in some of our open data. We have an open data portal where we make a lot of stuff freely and publicly available: Salary information is there, all of the Development Services permit things, a lot of police incident reports.
Oftentimes, I’m directing people to resources that exist where they can look and download stuff on their own. We’re continually having conversations about what sort of data sets can be added to the portal to facilitate that self-service and remove some of the barriers to getting access.