Sunshine Week. Journalists and open government advocates set aside this week each year to celebrate open records and push for stronger open meetings and public records laws. We know not every Raleigh resident can attend City Council meetings or dig through public records to see whether that permit was approved. That’s why we are here.
Yet Sunshine Week is a good reminder to Raleigh residents that public information is just that — public. You don’t have to be a journalist to request records or ask questions. For the untrained, the process may seem scary or difficult. So we sent our two interns in for an audit of three area government agencies. Our interns this semester are new to reporting, just like most residents.
We wanted to know whether they would find the assignment easy or encounter roadblocks. Here is what they reported.
Office: Raleigh Police Department
Date and Time: Feb. 28 at 2:23 pm
Person Requesting Records: Jordan Smith
Records Requested: January police reports about drugs, shots fired, murder and assault in the neighborhood surrounded by New Bern Avenue, Tarboro Street, Person Street, and MLK.
Before this experience, I had never been to a police station before. So when I went to the City of Raleigh’s webpage looking for the Records Division of the police department, I assumed that that was the only one in Raleigh. I soon learned that Raleigh has five police divisions and that the information I was seeking was not as easy to obtain as I had hoped.
When I first walked into the North District of Raleigh’s Police Department, I noted two things about the lobby: first, that it was not much of a lobby and second, that that was as far as I needed to go to find the Records Division. After speaking to the security guard on duty and stepping through the metal detector, I went up to the window and waited to get the attention of the lady, sitting on the other side. I asked her if I could submit a records request and after 15 minutes of going back and forth between her and the security guard as to what I needed, she referred me to several public access websites. My request was too broad; generally, their requests are for records pertaining to a particular address. Besides that, I was in the wrong district.
I had to regroup. I went home and spent some time examining the district maps looking for the exact intersection of roads that I needed. I learned that the neighborhood I was looking for was on the edge of two districts, Downtown and Southeast. Since the majority of my request was in the Downtown district, I began there. I called at 3:19 p.m. and spoke with Officer Gulch. He referred me to Sgt. Wood’s answering machine. I left a message with him.
Two hours later, at 5:20 p.m., I received a phone call from Jim Sughrue, head of Public Affairs. He asked that I send him an email with my request. He said that it wasn’t something that the police department usually did but that he would see what he could do to fulfill my request. It would take a few days. By noon March 4, Sughrue emailed me back a spreadsheet fulfilling my request.
Office: City of Raleigh, Inspections Department
Date and Time: Feb. 26 at 1:15 p.m.
Person Requesting Records: Jordan Smith
Records Requested: Database of housing renovation permits and inspection records on New Bern Avenue, Tarboro Street, Person Street, and MLK for the past five years.
After finding a number for the Inspections Department, I called and asked if I could speak with the person responsible for records requests. I was referred to Steve Luxton, Construction Plans/Codes Coordinator, for whom I left a message. A few minutes later Luxton returned my phone call and asked what I was seeking. After explaining it to him, he asked that I send him an email and that he would send me the websites where I could find this information. At 2:18 that same day he replied to my email with the links.
Office: Wake County Public School System Communication Department
Date and Time: Feb. 28 at 3:30 p.m.
Person Requesting Records: Sydney Barbieri
Records Requested: High School Suspensions in the last 5 years
I first went into the Crossroads I building. There, I talked to the security officer at the front desk. He was not 100 percent sure where to send me, so he radioed to another officer and asked her. The other officer said to send me to the Record Office in Crossroads II which was the building behind Crossroads I. He was friendly and willing to help.
In Crossroads II, the person at the front desk sent me to the Record Office. There, I explained what I was looking for. Somewhat aggravated, the two women behind the desk told me that whomever sent me to this office must have been confused and sent me back to Crossroads one to Student Due Process. I went back to Crossroads I and the security officer that the original one had radioed was back in the office. She explained that she had stepped out for a minute and had trouble hearing exactly what was being requested. She asked me to repeat my request. She then wrote on a sticky note the email address I needed to email to request the information and explained what to do. She was helpful and friendly the whole time.
I emailed the addressed, I am waiting for a response.