N.C. FOI law doesn’t care about motivation, ‘outsiders’

Many times, I’ve heard resistance from public officials to public records requests. Sometimes, they’re right, such as when a request is unreasonably voluminous. Some “Send me all…” requests need to be reined in.

But a sheriff in North Carolina recently complained in a way I’ve never heard: He objects to an “outsider” seeking public records, poking his nose in the county’s business — even though state law makes no such distinction.

Ashe County Sheriff Terry Buchanan railed during a public meeting about a reporter requesting public records while working elsewhere in the state — Charlotte, which appears to be about 110 miles south.

For everyone at the meeting, Buchanan repeatedly held up a copy of WBTV reporter Nick Ochsner‘s records request. It’s a peculiar diatribe — watch here.

In the clip, Buchanan explains: “Now, this is unprecedented, as I checked, in the county. We have never had a Charlotte reporter come up here to inquire about anything.” The sheriff denounces the request as “a political fishing expedition.”

Curiously, Buchanan says he doesn’t mind releasing records from his government cellphone. Instead, he harps on letting “an outside reporter come in from Charlotte” to get public records while Ashe County is busy with important projects and coping with a political divide. “We don’t have time for this,” he declares, continuing to grip and hold up the records request.

Buchanan says the public records request “thwarts my efforts and thwarts my job” of keeping the community safe.

The rant gets weirder when the sheriff turns to tell “our local guys, our local media” what he wants them do to — ask for even more information than WBTV requested, involving other officials. He urges them to be more concerned with the fact that a county commissioner also is a deputy sheriff with arrest powers and with the settlement of a court case.

Buchanan urges local reporters, local residents and county officials to question the Charlotte reporter about “who brought this to his attention.”

“Why would we have an outsider come into our county, put us on state and national news,” Buchanan says. “Why? Why would we do such a thing? It’s beyond me. If we love this county, and we want to keep the county out of the national news, we should stay right here in the county.”

Clearly, there’s a back story that I don’t know, but none of that matters when someone asks for public records.

“These types of things should not be allowed,” Buchanan says about the records request. “They should not interfere with county business.”

Another county official correctly reminds the sheriff that the law allows anyone to request public information, which many people do, even from other states.

The sheriff’s screed is a wild overreach of authority and shows a disregard for the purpose and intent of public records laws.

North Carolina’s public records law (which looks much better than the loophole-ridden law here in Maryland) permits nothing anywhere near what Buchanan is calling for — closing borders on public information to “outsiders,” questioning motivation.

Here is a guide posted by the University of North Carolina’s School of Government:

“G.S. 132-6 accords the rights of inspection and copying to “any person,” and there is no reason to think that the quoted words are limiting in any way. The rights extend both to natural persons and to corporations and other artificial persons (such as associations, partnerships, and cooperatives). And they extend both to citizens of the government holding the record and to noncitizens. Furthermore, as a general rule a person’s intended use of the records is irrelevant to the right of access, and the records custodian may not deny access simply because of the intended use.”
 ***
The sheriff may complain and be as unhappy as he wants, but it’s irrelevant and beyond the scope of his duties. It doesn’t matter if he likes the law — it’s still the law.
But the sheriff is free to ignore my opinion, too. I’m another “outsider.”

Tags: , , , ,


Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


Connect

Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn


© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ