Sunshine Week is a national effort to encourage transparency in all levels of government. With that in mind, Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich says it’s time to shine some light on local government emails.
“We’re living in a world where we need information quickly and we can have that information quickly,” says Rich. “Why not make it available?”
Under the North Carolina Public Records Law, emails sent to or received by government officials are considered public records. Anyone can make an information request to get a copy of those documents.
The towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro have gone one step further, putting government emails online in archives immediately accessible to anyone with a computer.
Now, Rich and other commissioners are pushing for Orange County to do the same.
“There’s an overall feeling, ‘let’s share this information, let’s have these emails available,’” says Rich. “And let’s face it, there’s not a large percentage of people who are going to spend their days scouring through county commissioner emails, but if there is one specific topic that you’re interested in and you want to see if that discussion has already taken place, or if there are any replies to that discussion, it’s a good first place to go.”
Rich says the main obstacle right now is money.
“I think it’s just a matter of how to make it happen financially. I don’t think there’s any push back about not sharing information; I think it’s just changing up the systems to allow that to happen. That has to come in front of the board.”
Whatever system is put in place to catalog the emails will need to filter out confidential discussions involving personnel matters, legal issues and property purchases.
There’s no set standard for how local governments should share emails online. Chapel Hill and Carrboro each take a slightly different approach.
Chapel Hill’s archive includes letters from staff, citizens and a flood of spam. The Mayor’s emails are released in batches each quarter. Carrboro’s emails trickle in at the rate of one or two a day, mostly in the form of comments between board members and staff.
It’s not clear what form an Orange County email archive could take, but Rich says it should be as inclusive as possible.
“In general, I would say 90 percent of our emails should be out there and people should be able to see what our conversations are.”
Rich says it’s not yet clear if funding for a public email archive will be up for discussion in next year’s budget negotiations.