A state Senator who previously chaired the N.C. State Port Authority wants to make contracts the state port authority enters into with carriers a secret.

If passed, the bill would carve out an exemption to the state public records law for “usage” contracts the state port enters into with carriers. The contracts generally detail the costs paid to the state for docking, handling cargo, storage and other services.


Photo from N.C. Ports Authority

Senate Bill 194 was introduced by state Sen. Michael Lee, a freshman Republican from Wilmington, and has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee.

Lee, who chaired the State Ports Authority before joining the legislature, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

North Carolina’s public records law defines nearly all the documents, emails, and contracts that public agencies enter into as belonging to the public, and available for public inspection upon request. There are exceptions to the law, and records used by law enforcement for criminal investigations, personnel files, personally identifying information like social security numbers and plans for economic development are frequently not disclosed.

The publicly owned and operated State Port Authority is under the state transportation department, and overseen by an 11-member board. It operates deep water operations in Morehead City and Wilmington, and inland ports in Charlotte and Greensboro, according to a 2013 audit of the port.

A private marina in Southport that the state owns was recently put up for sale by the port authority, according to the Wilmington Star-News.

The N.C. State Ports Authority did not initiate a request for the pending bill about public record exemptions, said Cliff Pyron, a spokesman for the state-owned port.

But keeping the information secret would be beneficial , he said.

“It’s just needed for competitive reasons,” Pyron said.

Other ports on the Eastern seaboard exempt that information from the public record laws, Pyron said, referencing to a recent study conducted for the State Port Authority. Pyron said he did not know what specific states shield that information.

N.C. Policy Watch asked Wednesday for a copy of that report under the state public records law, but it was not immediately made available.

Pyron also indicated that, if the bill passes, the public could access other information at the state port – just not the contracts the state enters into with carriers.

“This is only a very small section of our contracts and only ones that deal with specific ports services,” Pyron wrote in an email. “The overwhelming majority of our contracts—including construction, purchasing, consulting services, etc.-will remain available to the public.”


Just weeks after passage of a bill that allows publicly-funded charter schools to hide the salaries of their for-profit education management companies’ employees, State Board of Education chair Bill Cobey requested all charter school boards to disclose the salaries of their for-profit operators by September 30, or face the possibility of being shut down.

In a letter requested by Cobey to all charter school boards dated August 13, N.C. DPI’s CFO Philip Price explains that the new legislation, SB 793 or “Charter School Modifications,” does not change the fact that charter schools must abide by North Carolina’s Public Records Act as well as requirements set forth in their charters that demand them to disclose all employees’ salaries associated with the operation of their schools – whether they be employed by for-profit companies or not.

“After we looked at the law with lawyers, they ensured me it was our [the State Board of Education] authority to ask all charter schools, even for-profit education management organizations, to send all the salary info to us,” said Cobey.

Read More


Here’s your daily dose of sunshine today, or at least the open government type of rays celebrated every year as part of the national Sunshine Week.

Earlier this month,  Lee County commissioners abandoned their normal meeting location to hold what is supposed to be a town hall-type public meeting at Sanford’s private Carolina Trace Country Club, according to this account from the writers behind the Rant, a Sanford-based news blog. (Scroll down for the video, it’s worth it.)

After digging a bit, writer Billy Liggett, a former newspaper editor, found out that the March 7 meeting was not only being held in a place where the general public couldn’t go, it was limited to residents of the Carolina Trace gated community. An advertisement later obtained by Liggett about the meeting promoted the meeting as a meet-and-greet with local Republican elected official and candidates for upcoming races.

North Carolina’s open meeting law is pretty clear on what ought to happen when it comes to these situations, requiring that “each official meeting of a public body shall be open to the public, and any person is entitled to attend such a meeting.” Read More


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.


If you just happen to be a bit of a state policy wonk and lover of Apple products (guilty as charged, I’m afraid), then check out the new “Open States” application put out today by the Sunlight Foundation.

Built for iPhone and iPad users, the free app (click here to get it from the iTunes Store) aggregates data from several civic-minded websites (, VoteSmart) to give  a pretty impressive array of information about various lawmakers, and the bills they introduce.

It also uses GPS to help you figure out who a legislator is in the spot where you’re sitting, as well as links directly to legislator’s campaign contributions, the bills they’ve sponsored and maps of their districts.

And there’s photos of the lawmakers as well, which will at least help me figure out who’s who down at the N.C. General Assembly.

One initial disappointment I had is an apparent lag time in campaign contributions — the most up-to-date information was from the 2010 campaign (which includes money contributed in 2009) and nothing was up yet for 2011. I’d also like to see a bit more detail on how they got the data, which I found to be lacking.

Personally, I’ll plan on checking the App’s campaign contribution figures  (which comes from Follow the Money’s National Institute on Money in State Politics project) against the primary source data housed by the N.C. State Board of Elections, just to make sure the analysis is accurate. You can never be too sure, in my eyes, and best to always go to the source.

Despite that, the App seems like a useful way to get quick intel on lawmakers, and the type of information that most citizens find difficult to find.

Now, if only there was a way the N.C. General Assembly would see about letting the sun shine in a bit more, by posting agendas of committee hearings well ahead of time, archiving audio and video of their floor sessions and committee hearings and offering the public access to Wi-fi inside the N.C. Legislative Building.

That may be a tall order, but a reporter can dream, can’t she?

I’d be interested to hear what others think about the Sunlight Foundation App. Does it do anything more than what’s already out there? Find anything wrong with it?


(Note: an earlier version of this post misstated the name of the Sunlight Foundation)