If you wanted, you could walk into Havelock City Hall and request to see emails sent from City Manager Frank Bottorff’s work computer.
We don’t mean to single him out. After all, you could do the same for say Dave Smith, the recreation director. Or Bill Ebron, the public works director.
The reason is because such emails are considered to be public records, and as such, you as a citizen are entitled to view such things. After all, public records generated by and for the government don’t belong to the government or a government official. They belong to the residents.
Yet, there is a disturbing trend that should give every resident reason to pause. Some governments are charging you for copies of public records that are rightfully yours.
For example, there is a state policy to charge up to $54 an hour for public records. The government maintains that such fees are necessary to account for the added time it takes for a public official to research and then produce the requested records.
Huh? This makes no sense. After all, residents are already paying these public officials through tax dollars. They are already on the job, a job that requires them to be responsive to residents and a job that requires them to produce public documents when asked. In essence, taxpayers have to pay twice for something for which they have already paid.
The charges for public information really came to light when a resident of the town of Middlesex in Nash County had to pay $415 to obtain copies of emails from the town’s mayor.
And, stories that followed from the Wilson Times detailed how two other Middlesex residents canceled their requests for public records when informed of the potential costs of requesting public information.
This is wrong. Charging for such services does nothing but restrict the flow of public information, information that every citizen has a right to see and has paid for. Government should not be in the business of restricting public information. Government should be a willing partner with residents to make sure it is doing what it is supposed to be doing.
Charging $415 to see some emails hardly seems like a partnership. It hints at a government that is trying to hide something from its citizens.
This is Sunshine Week, an event designed to stress the importance of the public’s right to access public information. And, it goes beyond just a few emails. It’s about understanding how the government is spending your tax money and why.
And we don’t think you should have to pay to have that knowledge. The information, like the sunshine itself, should be free.