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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.

There’s been some news of interest recently about Chesapeake Energy, one of the natural-gas companies behind the push for North Carolina to lift its ban on fracking, the controversial drilling method for natural gas.

The company is facing charges of conspiring to fix land prices, and of shorting landowners royalty payments in order to keep the company afloat.

FrackingAs the Carolina Mercury pointed out last week, Chesapeake Energy was one of two energy companies indicted in Michigan this month on criminal charges of conspiring to keep property prices low in an area over a shale belt.

(The criminal charges and an ongoing federal anti-trust investigation stemmed from reporting by Reuters. Click here to read more.)

Here in North Carolina, Chesapeake Energy took legislators on fact-finding trips to Pennsylvania in 2011, as the lawmakers were considering a bill that eventually lifted the ban on fracking.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing involves setting of explosions deep into wells in the ground and then blasting with water and chemicals in order to extract natural gas caught in shale layers. There’s particular interest in bringing fracking to the Sandhills area of the state where a large underground shale belt straddles Lee and Chatham counties. (Scroll below or click here to see a map of shale deposits.)

The state’s Energy and Mining Commission is working to put rules in place before drilling can begin in 2015.  Many of the chemicals used in fracking have had links to cancer and other health problems, and groundwater contamination has been reported in other areas of the nation.

Chesapeake Energy has also run into financial problems because of the drops in natural gas pricing,  and apparently edged itself away from the brink of financial collapse in the last few years by cutting back on the royalties paid to landowners, according to a new report out today.

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N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos told lawmakers today that her agency may face problems clearing the last 2,000 cases of a massive backlog in emergency food assistance cases in time for a federal deadline.

“It will be extremely difficult and the stakes are very high,” Wos said in a legislative health oversight committee Wednesday. “There are no easy solutions are we move forward.”

Wos told lawmakers that 1,975 cases remained in the food stamps backlog.

A March 31 deadline was set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in response to a massive backlog that rose in December to more than 20,000 households waiting weeks to months for emergency food assistance.  The backlog stemmed from a steady increase in recent years for assistance and county-level social service workers encountering glitches and other problems with benefits-delivery system called N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology).

Though Wos told lawmakers today, as she had in last month’s oversight hearing, that things were improving, there are still those going without. Because of privacy laws surrounding government assistance like food stamps, it’s unclear if  scenarios like those of Maria Best, a Greensboro woman who has been waiting since December for food stamps,  are being reflected in DHHS caseload data.

We first spoke with Best, a 72-year-old and recent breast cancer survivor  living on a limited income, for a Feb. 12 article about the food stamps delays.Reached today, Best said she has yet to get any assistance, and has been waiting for more than three months for help. The last time she received food stamps was in November.

“It’s getting really tough,” she said, adding that she’s had to limit putting gas in her car and has been living off odds and ends in her pantry and freezer.

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Zach Galifianakis

Zach Galifianakis

What makes this worth watching is that North Carolina man happens to be  Zach Galifianakis, the comedian who grew up in Wilkesboro and owns a farm in Alleghany County. (His uncle Nick Galifianakis of Durham also served in Congress from 1967 and 1973.)

Galifianakis, who also attended N.C. State University,  “interviewed” President Barack Obama for his “Between Two Ferns” series he does of a spoof cable-access talk show he does for Funnyordie comedy website.

Obama came on to plug Healthcare.gov and ends up dodging questions about his birth certificate and the NSA.

Go ahead and watch, if you haven’t already:

Budget cuts were the main impetus for a decision last month by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to shut down three Eastern North Carolina offices that provide services and screen infants and toddlers at risk of developmental delays.

But the state agency can’t provide an estimate of just how much it expects to save by shifting the work of the federally-mandated early intervention program to a contract with East Carolina University’s medical school.

As we reported here Feb. 17, the state health agency told 173 staff members for the N.C. Infant-Toddler Program last month they would be out of jobs with the July 1 shutdown of offices in New Bern, Rocky Mount and Wilmington that provide services for disabled children and their families in a 21-county area.

The state currently has 16 children’s development service agencies (CDSAs) across the state that screen babies and children under three for developmental disabilities, and then provide services to many of those families.

The state will shift the workloads of the three Eastern North Carolina offices to a yet-to-be-negotiated contract with ECU, and staff can apply for the estimated 150 positions that will come out of the new contract. DHHS sent a letter to families stating that the office closures should not affect services.

ECU’s medical schools has an existing contract to provide services through the N.C. Infant-Toddler Program for Greenville and some surrounding counties.

Dr. Robin Cummings, the acting state health director, sent a letter to CDSA staff in February stating that the DHHS-run offices were being closed in favor of contracting out services because of pressures from state budget cuts and a state hiring freeze that leaves positions vacant — a problem that contractors don’t have to deal with.

The legislature, in the two-year budget passed this summer, had  called for $18 million in state funding cuts to the Infant-Toddler program, including $10 million for the upcoming 2014-15 fiscal year. The program also receives federal funds.

N.C. Policy Watch, when it first learned of the office closure three weeks ago, asked the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services communications office how much of the $10 million in cuts the agency was facing next year would be achieved by closing the three CDSAs in the eastern part of the state.

DHHS communications staff did not provide any figures of the estimated savings and DHHS spokesman Kevin Howell said in a written statement Friday the agency didn’t have that information.

From Howell:

The specific amount of money that the state will save by expanding the catchment area of the ECU CDSA cannot be determined until the new contract between DHHS and the ECU School of Medicine is finalized.  During the negotiations, there has been a common understanding that cost savings would be achieved.

As we have stated before, consolidating three state-run CDSAs into a successful, contract-operated program operated by East Carolina University is an efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars while assuring continued services.

So, stay tuned. We’ve asked DHHS to provide us with those figures when they are available as well as a copy of the contract with ECU.

The upcoming closures are expected to be discussed Tuesday at a 10 a.m. legislative health oversight committee.

Below is the Feb. 24 letter DHHS sent to parents of affected children:

 

Letter to Families 02242014 by NC Policy Watch