News: CJ Exclusives

Records requests: How transparent are North Carolina’s counties?  

Four Carolina Journal staff members in February sent public records requests to all 100 county governments in North Carolina. Counties were asked to provide the number of full-time equivalent positions authorized over the three most recent fiscal years, as well as the operating budget authorized by the respective county commissioners for the three most recent fiscal years.  

The survey was informal and wholly unscientific, although it was reflective of the daily, routine work of journalists. The survey was part of a series of news stories CJ completed to recognize Sunshine Week, March 10-16, a period designated to raise awareness of public records laws and encourage access to government. The records CJ sought are available to any member of the public who asks for them.

Responses trickled in over the course of a couple of weeks, with some counties responding on the same day. Some county officials responded and referred the questions to another office or led us to a county website. Many counties failed to respond at all. 

The results: 

  • 64 counties responded to the public records request and provided the requested data 
  • Seven counties responded but failed to provide the requested data 
  • 29 counties never responded to the public records request  

Though budget information is available on most county websites, sometimes the information isn’t presented in an easy-to-read format and hunting down pertinent data can become tedious and time-consuming. In at least one case, the provided links were broken.  

Some counties have designated public information officers, but a good number don’t have a communications or media relations team. Several emails were sent instead to county managers, county clerks, financial officers, or administrative assistants. Contact information in a few cases was scant, aside from a contact form or a phone number.  

Because the survey was informal, and the tallies unscientific, it’s possible our emails were lost or were buried beneath dozens of other requests. It’s also entirely possible our requests were ignored. Sending multiple public records requests, or making phone calls, could have resulted in obtaining the requested information, but CJ members sent just one email.