A tale of two public record’s requests

by Jeff Sykes

Sunshine Week is held every March and next year I plan not to forget it. Sponsored by a coalition of journalism associations and open government advocates, Sunshine Week is a time for reporters and the public to audit governments of all shapes and sizes on their public records policies.

It was my second time around this past March and I was quite unhappy with myself that I, yet again, forgot to schedule a specific project for the event.

Not to worry, I told myself, because public records research is something I do on a regular basis and I knew that plenty of opportunity would present itself down the road. I was fresh off the heels of a massive records narrative I had pieced together from hundreds of emails the City of Greensboro had turned over to me just before the holiday season in late 2014. I’d requested emails related to the negotiations over land transfers at Union Square Campus and been the recipient of a disc containing the emails just before I left to visit the inlaws in western North Carolina.

The fun thing about reviewing hundreds of emails in your in-law’s basement during the winter months is that it’s almost like reading a good piece of literature. These days, city planners, consultants, developers, and lawyers are all decent enough writers of emails and memos that one can piece together a pretty good story based on an overview of conversations taking place in real time across multiple points of connectivity.

The good people at the City of Greensboro weren’t real happy about the fact that I spent my holiday break reviewing their emails, but they were nice enough about it, and, hey, at least they complied with the spirit of public records policy in North Carolina by providing the results of my request in a reasonable amount of time.

I take that privilege very seriously.

I was judicious about naming staffers if I found a quirky anecdote that was off the wall, or a silly comment about the process that shed a bit of human insight into the often hidden functions of government. If there was no need to embarrass the staffer for their moment of levity, I felt the need to just report “one staffer said.” For decisions, arguments, and tension, however, leaving a record of the conversation was most important to me.

I also take the privilege of being able to ask to review government records very serious and do my best to narrow my request, and to limit my requests to three or four outstanding. Too often activists and bloggers in Greensboro file a spread of requests at one time, requests that are overly broad and vague and require an inordinate amount of staff time to fulfill. Recently, a blogger had more than a dozen outstanding requests, all filed within two or three days of each other.

That’s not an appropriate use of the public records law, in my view. It’s more akin to mania.

All of that brings me to the public records request I made with Guilford County on April 27, which to this date remains acknowledged, but unfilled.

In April it was announced that Guilford County had approved the issuance of $17 million of bonds to support construction of the Union Square Campus in Downtown Greensboro. I’d followed the Union Square story for about a year at that point and it was the first I’d heard of the county issuing bonds to pay for the project.

When I first began working in Greensboro one of the things I heard most often from readers and activists was that people often didn’t understand these public-private partnerships that brought about Center City Park, the Downtown Greenway, Union Square Campus, and the pending Performing Arts Center. Questions about the land and financing of Union Square abounded, once the dust from the announcement celebration settled, and seeing no other reporter really picking the project apart, I decided it was something I could look into.

As I said at the onset, I’d been studying the project from the city’s perspective and had benefited from three previous email records request filled by the city in a reasonable amount of time.

So on April 27, a week after I learned about the county issuing bonds for Union Square, I filed a records request with Guilford County. Now I’m a decent person and try to avoid damaging relationships, so I don’t see the need to name every person involved in the request. Suffice it to say that I contacted a person in the county administration and asked what was the procedure for filing a request. The person told me that I could send them the request, as the county did not have a dedicated public information officer. This is what’s transpired since then.

I sent the following records request:

” I would like to request emails, documents and correspondence to or from Union Square Campus Inc.’s John Merrill or Ed Kitchen asking the county to issue bonds to help finance the Union Square Campus. The date range on this could be Feb. 1, 2015 to present.”

The date range was a mere three months and the search terms narrowly tailored. The person acknowledged my request in a reply email that cc’d the county attorney, Mark Payne. Being patient, I decided to see how the process played itself out. By June 1 I had received no answer to my request and I followed up with my contact.

I followed up again on June 22, almost two months after the request was made. I received a response that she would “check on the status of this one.” Hearing nothing in the following days, I inquired again on July 1.

I have received no response to my inquiry since then, and suffice it to say, the request remains unfilled.

I called the county manager’s office about 10 days ago to inquire about the status of my request. The receptionist in the manager’s office said she would give him my message and “have someone return my call.”

Crickets. !