Public records requests can be a useful way to learn more about city business and obtain 911 calls, fire reports and more. But they’re only as useful as the system that gathers them. So how are the records collected?

How it’s done in Greensboro

To make a public records request in Greensboro, requesters can go to the city’s public records portal, enter their email and first and last name, their preferred method for delivery of records, and the subject line and description of the records. Whatever is written in the subject line is displayed publicly on the portal, as well as the requester’s first and last name — regardless of whether the request has been fulfilled. 

Kurt Brenneman is the city’s public records request administrator and notifies the requester within two days that their office has received the request. 

In an email to TCB, Brenneman said that when people request emails sent to and from all city email addresses, he asks them the date range and which email accounts they’d like to search, noting that they can search the city’s entire email archive or email accounts of specific departments or specific people. Brenneman asks them if the emails have a word or phrase in the subject or contents and if the emails were sent to or from a specific person within the city or outside the city.

Most requesters seek emails with a specific word or phrase, Brenneman noted. 

Brenneman then sends the information to the city’s information technology department which then searches the city’s email archive.

“Emails that meet the search parameters are then saved in a single Microsoft .pst file,” Brenneman wrote. 

Brenneman reviews the material and culls “all non-records and non-responsive emails (for example, when a search word is used two different ways, and only one way is of interest to the requester),” as well as all emails that are exempt from public access. 

“I redact public emails that contain information that is exempt from public access,” he said. “Usually this is personnel-related information. Finally, the emails are saved as an Adobe PDF Portfolio.” 

The city’s policy states that within five business days of receipt of the records request, the administrator will respond by providing copies of the records in digital or physical format, notifying the requester that no records were found, denying the request if the records are exempt from disclosure or asking the requester for more information. 

The policy also says that “if a response takes longer than five business days, the PIRT Administrator will contact the requestor to provide an update on the PIRT request.” 

When the request is complete, the records are published to the portal. 

Additionally, emails sent to and from council members that are older than seven days are available via the database Open Gate City. TCB Webmaster Sam LeBlanc made an email tool that’s way less tedious to navigate.

People can also request city employees’ texts.

But it looks a little different based on the city. 

Greensboro’s Marketing and Communications Director Carla Banks told TCB that each city council member is issued a cell phone by the city. 

“Regardless if they use a city-issued or personal cell phone, they are required to disclose texts related to city business, upon request,” Banks wrote, adding that some employees have a city-issued cell phone but others do not. 

As for how the city acquires texts, it appears to be on the honor system. 

“The individual assigned to the phone is responsible for conducting the search and providing the requested text messages,” Banks stated.

It’s different in Winston-Salem.

How it’s done in Winston-Salem

When making a request in Winston-Salem, requesters have a bit more privacy. Through a form on the city’s website, they can enter their first and last names, email and phone number, description of records and their preferred method for the delivery of records. They can also choose to receive an email copy of the form they filled out. 

When the request is complete, records are not publicly posted. 

City Attorney Angela Carmon stated that public records requests, such as requests for emails or texts are sent to the city’s Information Systems department, which has access to emails sent and received using a city employee email address. The department locates emails responsive to the request.

Once the IS department locates the emails, Carmon’s office reviews them to determine if the emails contain personal or confidential information that requires redacting. 

For text messages, a similar request to the IS department is made. Text messages can be pulled from a city issued phone by the department with the employee’s permission; however, Verizon requires a court order if the employee does not consent.

How long does it take to fulfill a request? What can I ask for?

Some requests take longer than others. 

On April 17, TCB requested texts and emails pertaining to city discussion of a 1-percent prepared food tax in Greensboro and Guilford County for an article that was published on May 2. The city did not begin to send council members’ and other city employees’ texts to TCB until June 12, and the records request was finally completed on June 29, more than two months after the initial request.

However, requesters can’t demand anything and everything under the sun — for example, requesting all texts and emails sent to anyone and everyone by a council member.

If more information is needed to fulfill a request, Brenneman has sent the following questions to requesters: “The following information is helpful: What type of records are you seeking? Can you describe the records? What do the records concern? When were the records created? How did you become aware of the records? Please reply with as much information as possible.” 

The oldest uncompleted request belongs to Greensboro activist Hester Petty, regarding accreditation for law enforcement agencies. The request was made on June 10, 2021.

What does the law say?

Passed in 1967, the Freedom of Information Act grants the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. The FOIA also requires agencies to proactively post online certain categories of information, including frequently requested records. There are exemptions on what can be disclosed, however, such as information relating to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency, privileged communications within or between agencies such as attorney-client privilege, information that would invade another individual’s personal privacy, information compiled for law enforcement purposes that could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings, and more.

Closed-session meeting minutes that are deemed protectable are also not disclosable.

According to state law — NCGS 132-1 — public records are defined as “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics,” made or received in accordance with the law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of NC government or its subdivisions. 

NC agencies include every public office, public officer or official — state or local, elected or appointed — institution, board, commission, bureau, council, department, authority or other unit of government of the state or of any county, unit, special district or other political subdivision of government.

Additionally, the law states that the public records and public information compiled by agencies are the “property of the people.” It’s the state’s policy that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost — the actual cost of reproducing the public record or public information.

According to NCGS 132-6.2, “Custodians of public records shall respond to all such requests as promptly as possible. If the request is granted, the copies shall be provided as soon as reasonably possible.” If the request is denied, an explanation of the basis for the denial will be provided. Public agencies are not required to respond to a request for a copy of a public record by creating or compiling a record that does not exist, per the statute.

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