Residents of Western North Carolina love to see the sunshine — especially this year, given the backdrop of cloudy skies that produced record-setting amounts of rain in 2018. Sunshine Week, created in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors and observed this year March 10-16, extends the metaphor to celebrate the salubrious effects of open government and freedom of information on our democratic system.
Under North Carolina law, records and information compiled by government entities are “the property of the people” and must generally be provided for free or at minimal cost upon request. “Documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings” and other media are all fair game, “regardless of physical form or characteristics.”
Our community has learned a lot about the limits of open government law over the past year, as indictments of former Buncombe County employees Wanda Greene, Mandy Stone, Jon Creighton and Michael Greene revealed corruption and embezzlement concealed from both the public and the media over many years. As part of the indictments, WNC residents discovered that Buncombe County provided false information in response to multiple records requests.
Those revelations highlighted what journalists have long known: There’s no foolproof way to ensure that information provided by government agencies in response to record requests is accurate or complete. Open records regulations depend heavily on governmental compliance, bolstered by the willingness of media outlets and the public to sue for access when it is improperly denied.
That’s why voluntary efforts by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to make more information available freely online are an excellent example of what we hope will become a wider trend. Posting documents, budgets, agendas, presentations and reports as they are created dispels suspicion, facilitates sound reporting and democratizes access to information.
The Asheville City Board of Education could take a page from the TDA’s book. Over the past couple of years, the district has emphasized a communications strategy heavy on upbeat posts, photos and videos on social media (#The ACSWay), but light on direct engagement with parent and community concerns and questions.
At a March 4 board meeting, parent Scott Barnwell highlighted the absence of information on the district’s achievement gap between white and black students — the largest in the state and fifth-largest in the nation. On the district’s website, Barnwell said, he found “no mention of the words ‘achievement gap’ or ‘opportunity gap’ in anything. I opened every single document.”
Xpress is currently waiting for Asheville City Schools budgets we requested on Feb. 6. On Feb. 20, the district provided the total budget amount for the current school year ($71,546,197) and the preceding two years but has not provided any additional detail, despite repeated follow-up requests. In contrast, Buncombe County Public Schools posts and updates its budget details online.
Similar requests for ACS data have been pending since mid-February on Asheville-based Sunshine Request, an online platform created by local volunteers to make requesting public information easy and anonymous. We commend the way this service empowers more local residents to seek out information for themselves. Perusing the open, fulfilled and pending requests on sunshinerequest.com can answer questions you may not have thought to ask and inspire many more.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the volume of requests may be straining the limits of governments. The law requires that information must be provided “as promptly as possible.” That vague directive — which comes with no specific time requirement — can bog down when the requested information includes both privileged and public records. In such cases, agency legal departments are often called upon to review record requests and redact restricted information prior to release.
The city of Asheville’s legal department is operating with a skeleton crew after the tightly spaced departures of three attorneys last year. Multiple Mountain Xpress staffers have been waiting for requests dating back to Aug. 28 — well over six months — which has stopped reporting projects in their tracks and limited our ability to provide the scrutiny and oversight that’s part of our job.
According to city spokesperson Polly McDaniel, the city employs a full-time public records officer to coordinate and facilitate requests. Asheville has received 1,013 records requests since July 2017; as of March 5, she said, 44 remained open. However, McDaniel was unable by press time to confirm the nature or submission date of the oldest pending request.
We call on the members of Asheville City Council and City Manager Debra Campbell to mobilize city resources to promptly fulfill information requests brought by local media outlets and residents. Continuing to keep requesters waiting for months, without any indication of when or if the information will eventually be provided, impedes timely discussion and reporting on issues of local concern and diminishes trust in government.
Over at the county, about six employees are at any given time processing upward of 15 records requests from the media and members of the public. County spokesperson Kassi Day says she’s close to finishing Buncombe’s oldest request, which dates to August 2018 and has required pulling multiple years of employee information. She says the county has noticed an increase in the number of records requests and general questions over the past year, which she attributes to the county’s Let’s Talk campaign and its new records request portal.
As new County Manager Avril Pinder begins her herculean task of cleaning the corruption from Buncombe’s Augean stables, we call on her and other local government officials to embrace a new ethos of openness and transparency. It’s time to let the sun shine in and face it with a grin — even when it might seem easier to take refuge in tactics of delay and withholding information.
That’s a change in the local weather we can all get behind.