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Shuffling records out of sight

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The town of Kitty Hawk hasn’t had a high profile since a couple brothers from Ohio lugged a winged contraption down to the dunes at Kill Devil Hills for a half a minute of powered flight.

Their feat briefly inflated the notoriety of the Outer Banks settlement that is now home to some 3,000 full-time residents. But since then things have been pretty quiet.

Until two weeks ago, when representatives from The Outer Banks Sentinel squared off against Kitty Hawk town attorneys over the accessibility of legal records, the latest iteration of a battle that started more than a year ago when one of the Sentinel’s intrepid reporters noticed a sharp rise in the town’s legal bills.

The budget line item – $1 million between 2003 and 2005 to condemn oceanfront property – raised a few eyebrows in the paper’s tiny newsroom. And so, like good reporters, the writing staff tried to dig a little deeper.

Then they ran into a problem: Kitty Hawk is a small town, and as such cannot afford to hire a full-time attorney. So they hired a couple of hot shots from Vandeventer Black, a Raleigh law firm, to handle the town’s legal issues for them.

In the tussle over legal documents, Vandeventer Black has maintained that the private firm needn’t reveal the details of the town’s cases. Editors from The Outer Banks Sentinel disagreed, arguing that since they were paid with town money, the law firm should cough up what in their estimation are public records.

In the first round a NC Superior Court judge sided with the paper but, instead of complying, the law firm has chosen to keep fighting.

Now in the interest of transparency, we here at YES! Weekly feel the need to disclose our more-than-ideological kinship with The Outer Banks Sentinel. Both papers operate under the aegis of Womack Newspapers, Inc., whose principal occupies an office across the hall from our editorial department.

That said, we’d be inclined to support the paper even without the taint of self-interest, because as reporters we respect not only the letter but also the spirit of the NC Public Records Law. Since the town’s hired law firm is fighting tooth and nail against revealing exactly what the town has paid them $1 million to do, we can only assume that whatever is in the documents might be a bit unflattering to the law firm, Kitty Hawk officials or both.

The best way for Vandeventer Black and the town of Kitty Hawk to dispel the suspicion the Sentinel’s reporting has heaped upon them would be for the firm to come clean with the documents. That means no Magic Marker, no Wite-Out and no missing pages.

A town should not be able to escape the reach of the public records law by simply subcontracting their dirty work. The residents of Kitty Hawk have a right to know why $1 million in tax dollars have been spent on lawyers instead of basic services like police officers, fire and roads.

And the people of North Carolina need to know that their leaders cannot – like a three-card monte dealer – simply shuffle their money and dealings out of public sight.

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