Public records are the building blocks of journalism. Not every great story has a paper trail that wends through a county courthouse or a city hall, but most of them do.
Simply put, we couldn’t do the people’s business without timely fulfillment of public-records requests by city and county staff.
So we applaud the city of Greensboro, which recently revamped its public-records policy to include, among other things, a full-time staffer to handle requests and a streamlined approach that allowed the city to handle more than double the previous year’s requests in 2013.
Read about it this week on page 9.
That one may be our fault: It was our reporting that unearthed emails naming a sitting councilmember as a confidential police informant, emails the city contended that we should not have gotten but, thanks to the New York Times and the Pentagon Papers case, we were allowed to publish.
The Pentagon Papers case, you may recall, involved leaked documents that the Supreme Court eventually ruled the NYT could publish under the First Amendment. In the lead-up to the Supreme Court case, New York Circuit Court Judge Murray Gerfein issued the following words: “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”
That was the deal in 1971 and that’s the deal today.
It’s a good thing that Greensboro has honed its policy to align with the times: It’s easier than ever for cities to provide public records because of digital files, keyword searches and, you know, email.
By embracing the technology, Greensboro no longer charges for paper copies of documents, which is good because nobody wants them.
In contrast, Winston-Salem seems to be using technology as a reason not to fulfill records requests in a timely and comprehensive manner. They still use paper files, and charge 6 cents a page for them. Our last records request cost more that $40.
“[T]rying to send information electronically is challenging,” City Attorney Angela Carmon told TCB. “Then you end up having to put it into six, seven or eight stacks to transmit. You have transmission issues.”
Or, you know, you could just email it.