On complying with the law

In 2004, Editor Sandy Semans of the Outer Banks Sentinel — one of our sister papers, also owned by Womack Newspapers — found a discrepancy in the budget of the town of Kitty Hawk: an amendment that accessed $100,000 for the town to cover its legal fees.

The town had outsourced its legal department a few years earlier to a private firm of VanDeventer Black. And Semans discovered that Kitty Hawk had paid the firm about $1 million over three years. Kitty Hawk has about 3,000 full-time citizens and an annual budget of about $4.6 million. Complicating matters was that one of the firm’s lawyers, Robert Trivette, was married to a town councilmember, Donna Trivette.

Semans smelled a rat, and made a request of the town and the firm for an itemized bill for legal services. The mayor at the time, Clifton Perry, has said that he wanted to hand over the records immediately, but that the five-member town council outvoted him on legal advice from the town’s attorney — provided by VanDeventer Black — which asserted that the town had “sovereign immunity” and that the billing documents were not a matter of public record. Eventually the town did hand over some of the billing documents, but Semans said they were redacted so heavily that the rel-evant information was obliterated.

The law is on the side of the people when it comes to public records.

In August 2004, the Sentinel filed a complaint against Kitty Hawk for violating public records law.

A lengthy court battle ensued in which the defendants tried every legal gambit in the book to prevent the newspaper from seeing these records: motions to dismiss, motions to strike portions of the complaint, motions to quash subpoenas of a town council member. In Dare County Superior Court in April 2005, all motions were denied and the town was ordered to hand over unredacted billing records. There began an appeals process that lasted until January 2007, when a judge ordered that Kitty Hawn turn over the records. In June 2007, the town was ordered to pay the Sentinel $75,000 for accrued legal bills, leaving the door open for the paper to go after the law firm for the rest.

The story was reported in the Sentinel, of course, but was also picked up by the News & Observer, Editor & Publisher, the First Amendment Center, the North Carolina Press Association and, naturally, YES! Weekly.

It applies in the here and now as Greensboro officials attempt to revamp the city’s process for public-information requests. Let it serve as a warning to the crafters of the new policy that the law is on the side of the people when it comes to public records, that denying them can be costly and embarrassing, and that newspaper like ours are relentless in our pursuit of the truth.

Even the state government is coming around. Last week NC senators Thom Goolsby and Tom Apodaca filed SB125, which would make it a Class 3 misdemeanor to “deny access to public records for purposes of inspection and examination, or to deny copies of public records.”

A Class 3 misdemeanor is punishable by up to 10 days in jail for the first offense. It’s not much, but it’s a good start towards a more transparent government.

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