Seeking "public" information

Kudos to the Daily Tar Heel for their recent investigative piece about obtaining public records. In addition to asking for copies of correspondence of local elected officials (which I summarize below) they include tips for making public record requests and highlight how this kind of information is used in their reporting.

Having served on several town advisory boards in the past 15 years, I can't even count how many times our volunteer work has been stymied by the inability to collaborate online between meetings. The Town has prohibited discussion through e-mail because of a valid concern that it would violate the open meetings law. However, the Town has also consistently turned a blind eye to the obvious solution of a publicly-archived listserve that could both facilitate intra-board communication and improve public access to our conversations.

Below are excerpts of the DTH's comparison of each municipality's method for accessing elected officials' e-mail correspondence. This is yet another reminder of how our local governments are entering the information age kicking and screaming instead of seeing opportunities for increased transparency and civic engagement.

Files of [Chapel Hill Town Council] e-mails for about the past month and a half are kept in binders on a table in the clerk's office for anyone to review. Records beyond that time are made available upon request.

The e-mails are not available in electronic form, and copies cost 10 cents per page.

A request for copies took four business days and cost $35.30 for a month's worth of correspondence.


The Web site for the Orange County Board of Education states that any e-mail correspondence with a board member concerning school business is subject to public records law. The rule is stated clearly, but the process to procure those documents is more complex.

When asked for all seven school board members' e-mails during the past 30 days, Anne D'Annunzio, the school system's public information officer, said the board members use personal e-mail addresses for all public business. She said she could not access those accounts, so any public records requests would need to go to each member.


When asked to see e-mail messages from the past 30 days, [Carrboro Town Clerk] Williamson directs people to a binder sitting outside her office. The notebook contains e-mails extending beyond the 30-day period requested, so those needing particular dates can remove the pages for photocopying. In this case, 53 pages were copied...

Though most citizens must pay 10 cents for each copied page, students can make copies for free. None of the documents were available electronically.


Two days after the request [for Hillsborough Town Commissioners' correspondence], Potts provided several compact discs and paper copies of e-mails, including e-mails from the mayor and almost all of the department heads. Potts also provided hard-copy e-mails from the police chief.

Only one commissioner's e-mails were provided and not in electronic form.

The reasons cited for not getting all of the commissioners' e-mails were that two commissioners did not save town-related e-mails after they read them, one commissioner had no e-mail account and another was out of town - though Potts provided those e-mails upon the commissioner's return.

This was the first time Potts had dealt with a request for all commissioners' e-mails.

The experience sparked discussion about board members having town e-mail addresses. The board discussed this option at a late-February town meeting as a result of this request, Potts said.
- Local officials open to citizens' requests - Investigative Team 3/19/07



Actually, Council authorized the Tech Board to pilot a program of online deliberations. The deliberations would follow the recommendations of David Lawrence, who drafted many of NC's open meetings laws.

Gregg put it pretty well in his resignation letter (online, as we tried to walk the talk)

>I further regret that Cal Horton offered his arcane, 5 year old memo at that same meeting to effectively stop all regular communications of the
>Technology Committee via e-mail. How's that for progressive? And, ultimately, I regret raising everyone's expectations by spending so much time
>and energy working with David Lawrence and Evelyn Daniel on the development of the Electronic Meetings Proposal, only to wait over four months for a
>positive decision by the Town Council, and then to have everyone on the Technology Committee receive a nakedly political letter from the Town
>Attorney that effectively blocked our testing of it. No wonder we're seeing some "retirements".

That letter from Ralph was pure poison.

I've made a number of requests for staffs general emails to Council, equivalent to those notices I saw as a candidate, be posted to an email archive. Last time I asked for Council to move on this Bill Thorpe slapped the idea aside.

Our Town should make general correspondence - vendor to staff, staff to Council, developers to staff, etc. available as a matter of course. While making citizen to Council emails available is a legal necessity, I'm still not convinced that publishing them automatically is best.

Funny thing Ruby, you thought it silly for me to ask for these emails to be published, what's change?

Also, it would be great if ALL the confidential records I requested for Lot #5 be released in an as accessible a form as possible. I spent $46.30 on paper copies of electronic documents and audio recordings, all of which should be posted to the DDI website. It shouldn't of taken a request to release, especially considering the fluctuations in the deal.

I read that article and thought it was a good piece of journalism. The N&O articles and one particular letter about access to electronic information were also quite good.

The county is about to launch a cable channel where its meetings are live. Now if we could just get them & Chapel Hill to podcast (Carrboro and the CHCCS Board of Ed already podcast), then we would be one step closer to more open next-day access to meeting details.

I requested information on the secret county campus and was denied even after it was announced as a done deal. I am still troubled that a $25M project was done with no public input and that the records are being kept secret.

That is absolutely ridiculous that they charged you for documents which were already in electronic form (assuming that you actually *did* want them sent to you in electronic form - I seriously doubt that WillR would have requested a paper copy when he could have had an electronic document). If you had specifically requested a paper copy instead of an electronic document, then I could see the charge.


According to what we were told last week at the Technology Forum (

Having handled public records requests for legislative emails, I can tell you that public records requests are not easy, especially when the public officials has comingled their personal emails with business records. I had one request where the official, who was no longer a public official, had many THOUSANDS of emails. I examined each and every one of them, categorizing them as public, not public, or mixed. I then set up two new folders in the users email account, moving the public to one folder and the mixed to another. The first folder we exported to a CD and delivered to the requester (no charge). The second group (maybe 50 emails) we printed out, redacted (deleted) the personal stuff with a black marker, copied them again to make sure the redacted stuff was not visible, and delivered the paper copies to the requester. I'm not sure if we charged a copying fee for the 50 paper copies, I don't handle the financial side of anything. It took me four full days to handle the records request.

Wow what a pain, Gerry!

For me, your example underscores the need for the Town to provide information infrastructure that facilitates communication and accessibility. For example, every elected official should have an e-mail address provided by the town or county with which to conduct official business. Then the records would be immediately available in the most useful form (ie: electronic & searchable) on the government's own servers.

Gerry, thanks for a real life example to discuss. It stinks that you had to spend that much time on it.

Elected officials should be given an official email address to conduct official business. They should use their own personal email for personal (non-elected-official) business. Then it should be very little work to make the official emails available.

In general, I don't have a problem with minimal fees to make copies of paper documents or redacted documents. I do have a problem with fees for electronic copies or for charging for situations where there should have been electronic copies.

But even with an email address provided by the town or county with which to conduct official business, would not their private email accounts still be subject to a request?

Of course email sent to a private email address of a public official and dealing with public business is subject to the Public Records Act. Mandating either having a public email account or forcing people to use it is problematic. Many smaller units of government have no way to do this. Even if it was made available to a council member, if they do not know how to configure a mailreader to hit a popserver, what good is this? If the council member has made it only to the technological level of reading email then no law is going to help. If the town forwards official email to the member's personal account, then the outbound emails are going to come from the members email account.

In this situation, the town is going to have to forward the public records request to the council member to anwer. The town clerk probably does not have access to the members private email account .

In one sense, this is no different than whether a constitutent sends US Postal Service mail to the town hall or the members home address, or if the member sends out a handwritten note from home or has a town secretarial staff member type the reply and have it metered at town expense.

Speaking of having an official email address, back in December, I needed to email Durham Mayor Bill Bell, so I went to the Durham City website searching for an email, and at I found it listed as:

I sent Mayor Bell an email, and within 24 hours later I got an email from a reporter saying he had read my email as he has a standing request for copies. The reporter told me that Mayor Bell never actually reads emails sent to that address (I do not know that for a fact, that's what the reporter told me). The reporter sent me Mayor Bell's personal email address, and suggested I write to that address which I did.

I never got a response from the Mayor to EITHER email, but I am not a resident of Durham and I know many public officisl put a very low priority on answering emails or correspondence from non-constituents. On the other hand, I've known Mayor Bell for over 30 years.

Gerry wrote: "Of course email sent to a private email address of a public official and dealing with public business is subject to the Public Records Act."

Thanks for verifying that information Gerry. I was told at last weeks Technology Forum that email from private accounts is not subject to the Public Records Act.

let me clarify, if a public officer uses a private email account to send emails relating to public business, those emails are public

let me clarify, if a public officer uses a private email account to send emails relating to public business, those emails are public

I agree. That is why I tried to make it clear that the private email address should be used exclusively for "(non-elected-official)" business.

Mark, in a perfect world, that might be possible, but no matter if an official can make it work that way, if they have other addresses someone will still want to review then, if only to ensure there's nothing on them that's public business. Hence, folks like Gerry spends globs of time anyway.

However, both towns could move to immediately create email accounts for each and every elected official and ask them to use those accounts as their primary vehicle when communicating about town business. Currently, between Chapel Hill, Carrboro, BOCC, and CHCCS school board, only Kevin Foy has an official email account listed as his contact info.

However, both towns could move to immediately create email accounts for each and every elected official and ask them to use those accounts as their primary vehicle when communicating about town business. Currently, between Chapel Hill, Carrboro, BOCC, and CHCCS school board, only Kevin Foy has an official email account listed as his contact info.

On the BOCC, it appears that everyone except Mike Nelson has an email address provided by the county. It is my understanding that the addresses were provided by the county since long ago, and Valerie Foushee has a newer address.

Fred, I think it should be the responsibility of the elected official to routinely forward official emails from a personal account to the official account in a timely fashion. The question is, must an elected official grant access to his/her personal email account for a staff person to peruse? What about a private work email account? Must the elected official retain deleted personal emails so someone can go through them later just to make sure they are personal? Seems like there are privacy issues along with public access issues here.

Mark, I personally agree with your philosophy and think that we have severly altered public vs. private in more areas than just this one. The problem, however, is that those who want access will probably will not accept the "I forwarded all business related emails to my official account" response. They want to see it all for themselves and I don't think they care which accounts they are in or who ultimately owns the accounts.

What we are dealing with is the loss of privacy by virtue of becoming a public figure. Is it right and proper? Each can answer for themselves but I suspect that it's just another reason why people decide not to run for office.

We seem to be no longer satisfied with just the "trust but verify" approach and we seem to now start with an official must be guilty of something it they don't take the steps that I want them to take to prove that they are innocent - this time!

all the 3000+ emails I was reviewing were on a public email account, but there were plenty of "private" emails in that account I had to review to see how they should be classified. I say "private" because the emails had nothing whatosever to do with public business (things like organizing a class reunion, corresponding with college roommate, sports talk. Nothing salacious.)

The requester was willing to accept my judgment on the issues.

I agree with Mark Peters; here's my example.
Kevin Foy is helping me write a new will. He's a lawyer
(as well as CH mayor) and I fully expect complete privacy
from him and from me about my will. Even though
there is nothing suspicious in my will -- indeed
it's pretty boring -- I don't want a reporter or other citizen demanding to see my will, based on the fact that Kevin
is an elected official.

I used to teach my Comp 14 students to treat e-mails
as picture postcards -- Hi mom, having a great time
in the snow here in Buffalo, Love, Joey -- and to expect zero privacy. The only reason that most are not read is that
there are way too many sent every day for people to read,
so the statistical chance that yours will be read is very small.

I can't agree that people shouldn't be charged for
public documents just because they're in electronic form.
It can take hours of staff time to ferret them out, and
the public should be charged for this, just like a homebuilder
is charged for a building inspection.

Should every email that is sent to a
councilmember be posted on the town website?


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