"'Public record' or 'public records' shall mean 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 pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions."
-- North Carolina Public Records Law, Section 132-1
In Chapel Hill Town Hall, just around the corner from the mayor's office on the main floor, sit two very thick, white binders. Anyone can read them, and ask for copies of anything they read, any time that the building is open.The binders contain letters and e-mail sent to Mayor Kevin Foy and Town Manager Roger Stancil. They are must reading for Town Hall reporters. When anger over the Town Council's recent health insurance vote surfaced, it hit the binders first. When praise for a town police officer or firefighter comes in, it makes the binders well before council chambers, if it gets there at all. Most of the time, though, the binders are a window onto government business as usual. A resident complains about a road and you get to read the complaint and the town traffic engineer's response. A resident expresses concern about an old tree threatened by development, and you get to read the town forester's response. (And learn we have a town forester.) So a couple of weeks ago after reading the Chapel Hill binders, I went to Carrboro Town Hall to read its binder. I found it outside the clerk's office. There was next to nothing in it, and the sign-up sheet still had Associate Editor Dave Hart's name among its recent readers -- and Dave hasn't covered Carrboro since 2005. So I called Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton. I told him the town wasn't complying with the Public Records Law. I told him seeing the e-mails he sends and receives would help improve our coverage.He apologized. He said his e-mail box got personal and public matters, said he knew that under the law that didn't matter ... And two days later he set up a new e-mail account, email@example.com, and a Google group where anyone can read official correspondence.It's even better than a binder.And you know what? Since Chilton did that, local coverage of Carrboro -- ours and other media outlets' -- has improved. Almost daily, we updated you last week on the towing situation at Abbey Court. We also were able to report on the new barbed wire fence that has closed a popular pedestrian path outside Estes Park Apartments. In fact, we can now tell you the town has a meeting with apartment management today, because we read it on the Google group.And so can you -- at groups.google.com/group/official-correspondence.Gaining access to public correspondence, especially e-mail, is not always as easy as calling the public official. Even Gov. Mike "I chunked it" Easley has to be reminded it's the public's e-mails he's deleting. But when a local official acts quickly to comply with the law, we think you ought to know. We know a lot more about what's happening in Carrboro now because Mark Chilton didn't have to be asked twice.