The annual celebration of Sunshine Week is officially underway. But we got the conversation started a few days early in our talk with Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition.
Jones talked for more than an hour about some ongoing public records and open government issues in the state. He says one of the biggest topics these days is the move by some local and state agencies to set fees on fulfilling some records requests. For example, the governor’s office says it may charge for requests that take longer than 30 minutes to fulfill.
Jones says he’s advised people who faces fees to ask to inspect the documents (which shouldn’t bring a fee), rather than get a copy. Also, if you do decide to pay fees, make it clear that you’re paying under protest.
Jones says North Carolina is in the middle of the pack among other states in the strength of its open government laws, though worries there could be a push to reopen the Sunshine laws. North Carolina doesn’t set hard deadlines on when agencies must fill a request. Asked whether it’s an overt tactic by some agencies to delay fulfilling requests (in hopes requester gives up), Jones said in some cases, yes.
If someone is having trouble getting records, Jones says his office will first try to make sure the person is requesting the right documents. He also encourages people to be persistent in following-up on requests. But Jones says if you threaten to sue, be prepared to follow up on that threat. Otherwise, agencies may realize you won’t keep our word.
A few other tidbits:
- N.C. Open Government Coalition is considering giving out awards to groups that do a good job of responding to records requests. Pass along any recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org
- The coalition has an NC Sunshine Center app that you can download for iOS and Android devices
- The coalition also wants to have 10 workshops across the state this year to help teach the public about sunshine laws.
- The coalition offers individual memberships of $25 a year. It also holds an annual Sunshine Day event (this year’s is on March 17 in Elon).
Twyla McDermott from the city of Charlotte talked about a new open data portal they are building that is modeled after RecordTrac in Oakland, Calif. That city’s portal will be a place for people to submit records requests, and where the city will post requests as they’re filled. The Code for Charlotte brigade is working on several projects on topics like transparency, youth and environment. Upcoming events include a Hacknight on March 24 at UNC Charlotte. You can get more info on the brigade’s Meetup group.
Our next Greater Charlotte SPJ meeting is April 9 and will feature Geoff Roth, vice president of local content for My Fox Carolinas (WJZY-46). This will be a chance to learn more about the new station, which aired its first TV broadcasts in January. As usual, the meeting will start at 6:30 p.m. at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille. We also are in the early planning stages of hosting a trivia event and journalism-related movie night.
Let us know if you have any questions or ideas for the chapter.
– April Bethea
Secretary, Greater Charlotte SPJ