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Release of some public records slows to crawl in North Carolina

Reporters around the state have encountered problems in getting public records requests filled quickly, despite state law requiring public agencies to release records “as promptly as possible.”

The New & Observer, in a story over the weekend, details how reporters have faced months-long waits for public records, including the eight months an Asheville-based reporter waited for records related to the state’s unexpected shutdown of an abortion clinic there last year. (Click here to read the Carolina Public Press investigative report that stemmed from those public records.)

The article was published as part of “Sunshine Week,” an annual focus on open government and public records laws across the country.

From the N&O:

The delays mean the public lacks timely insight into how public dollars are being spent and how public servants are fulfilling their duties.

Soon after taking office, Gov. Pat McCrory declared Medicaid “broken” and promised to reform the program. He hired an experienced Medicaid manager, Carol Steckel, as Medicaid director.

The governor made it clear that he wanted to move North Carolina’s Medicaid program to a managed care model, under which private insurance companies would manage parts or all of the program.

When Steckel abruptly resigned in September, The News & Observer requested access to Steckel’s work-related emails. WRAL separately requested all of Steckel’s emails that mentioned managed care.

Six months later, the department has yet to produce a single email.

A slowdown in the public accessing records can make it difficult for news media to pass information to the public, as this article from WRAL explains. It also prevents citizens from being able to scrutinize and evaluate government institutions funded with taxpayer dollars.

From WRAL:

What’s important to remember, [open government lawyer Mike] Tadych said, is that, in accessing public records, reporters are exercising a right available to the average citizen.

“With respect to access to public records, the media have no greater right of access than the general public,” Tadych said. “They may avail themselves of it more, but it’s not just something there for the journalists.”

On the local level, where Tadych said citizens most often deal with government officials, all kinds of public records can help residents find out more about what’s going on in their backyards. That might mean getting information about a change to local zoning ordinances or a proposal to change city rules.

Although he said there’s no legal obligation for local officials to answer your questions, it typically helps to let the public agency know what you’re looking for as narrowly and clearly as possible.

You can learn more about North Carolina’s public records laws and how to request records here.

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