SOUTHEASTERN, NC — North Carolina law requires governmental bodies to turn over public documents to anyone who requests them, but that doesn’t always mean the process is quick or easy. Further, the law doesn’t require public officials to respond to media questions.
That means that, while most — but not all — document requests do eventually get fulfilled, plenty of questions still go answered.
Often, that’s the result of public officials refusing to answer those questions, whether that means issuing a canned “non-answer” or refusing to comment altogether.
Here are some of the major questions Port City Daily asked, and for various reasons, went unanswered this year.
After Hurricane Florence passed through, Taylor Maready returned to his business – Ecological Marine Adventures (EMA) – to find the building condemned, despite minimal damage.
The town had removed air-conditioning units from the building, leaving behind animals, and padlocked the business. However, the town-maintained building was only partially closed; another section, occupied by the NCDOT, remained open.
In early October, Port City Daily emailed Surf City Town Manager Ashley Loftis to ask several questions, including why EMA was condemned, who made the decision to remove the A/C units and padlock the building, and why these decisions were made.
Loftis refused to answer questions and pressed Port City Daily to reveal where it had received information about EMA from.
Two weeks later, the reporter asked additional questions, including whether the town had a plan to honor its obligations, per the lease with EMA, to repair the building, or if there were any arrangements for the animals housed at EMA.
Loftis eventually responded with a written statement but didn’t answer the initial questions, including who was responsible for condemning the building and why it was condemned.
Loftis’s letter concluded by saying the condemnation had been a public safety issue, and while apologizing for “the lack of communication” reiterated the town’s attorney had become involved and the town couldn’t comment.
In the wake of Hurricane Florence, rumors circulated that Pender County officials had denied a branch of the Cajun Navy access to areas hit by catastrophic flooding.
On Monday, Oct 8, Port City Daily emailed Pender County Director of Emergency Management Tom Collins the following question:
“Todd Terrell and a volunteer named Robert Pepper both informed me that Pender County, specifically yourself, kicked out the majority of their boat crews. This, according to the individuals I talked with, was after three days of successful rescue operations, working alongside the EOC. What were the reasons behind you asking these boat crews to leave Pender County?”
Collins did not answer and, two days later, Port City Daily published the story. That same day Port City Daily again reached out to Collins again asking if he wanted to give his side of the story.
Collins responded, “Yes sir I would, the main reason I was unable to give you any feedback my computer crashed. I do not normally give press briefings on email. We are having a press briefing tomorrow with Spectrum News at the EOC at 10 am you are welcome to come and hear our side.”
During the press conference, Collins firmly denied all of the claims made that Pender County’s storm response was in any way inadequate.
The Town of Leland
In October, Port City Daily submitted a public records request to the Town of Leland requesting electronic communications between elected officials of the town and Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO.
Both entities are currently aligned in a lawsuit against the Town of Belville in an attempt to reverse a contested transfer of assets that dissolved H2GO in Nov. 2017. Despite a court order that essentially “froze” things as they were after the transfer, Leland and H2GO have, at the very least, entertained legal agreements that may interfere with the existing court order.
On several separate instances, legal agreements between the two entities have appeared — and then disappeared — from each party’s monthly agenda.
Leland’s town clerk confirmed several days after receiving the request that she is working on the request. Two months later, there has been no further response to the document request.
The Town of Oak Island
In October, the mayor of Oak Island’s son was arrested for a second time on charges related to child pornography. The town’s police department continued to investigate the case, despite the potential conflict of interest the mayor’s position could create.
Port City Daily requested electronic communications between elected officials and all members of the Oak Island Police Department relating to the case.
Several days later, Brian Edes, the town’s attorney, acknowledged the request in writing and over the phone. Over the phone and in writing, Edes indicated he was in possession of the records Port City Daily had requested but needed time to redact them in accordance with state law.
Edes has yet to deliver those records.
Wilmington Planning Commission
Richard Collier and Bruce Bowman both worked on the CenterPoint project and recused themselves from the final vote by the Planning Commission. However, both men refused to answer questions about how they handled the conflict of interest in their interactions with staff and their fellow commissioners.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Deb Hays responded to an email about the issue but said she could not discuss it because it was a Special Use Permit (which does restrict conversation prior to a vote).
Hays redirected all further questions about conflicts of interest to Deputy City Attorney Amy Schaefer, who would say only that all city appointees had acted appropriately.
Hays did not respond to follow-up questions about whether or not commissioners could discuss how they handle potential conflicts, or about how the Commission deals with the issue in general.
City of Wilmington
A year after the contractual deadline to build Riverwalk bathrooms passed, developer Charles Schoninger, along with another developer, paid the city $250,000 to pass responsibility for the bathrooms over the city.
Schoninger had been unable to satisfy PPD, which has “architectural covenants” giving it the legal right to approve or deny any construction in the North Waterfront area, with a bathroom plan. PPD confirmed it did not approve of the temporary installation Schoninger had planned.
The question then became: would the city be held to the same 90-day deadline that Schoninger had?
At the time, City Manager Sterling Cheatham gave several non-answers.
Asked if the city would build the bathrooms, Cheatham responded, “there has been no amendment to the city’s current agreement with NRMH at this time.”
As a follow-up, Cheatham was asked if PPD’s covenants were preventing the city from building bathrooms. Cheatham responded, “public bathrooms downtown, particularly the northern downtown, remain a priority for the city and we will continue to work toward that.”
Both Mayor Saffo and the City Council as a whole were invited to comment and, while several members had addressed the issue in the past, no response was received this time.
Wilmington Police Department
In November, the Wilmington Police Department announced a series of shootings, many of which were detected using ShotSpotter, a network of audio surveillance devices used by the city.
Port City Daily submitted a request for more information about ShotSpotter, including details about the capabilities and cost of the system.
Port City Daily also inquired whether the department had ever used ShotSpotter for audio surveillance – in other words, if ShotSpotter was capable of more than just detecting gunshot-like sounds.
In early December, Port City Daily submitted a formal request for this information, which was passed onto Linda Rawley, the department’s chief spokesperson. Rawley has yet to respond.
Rawley has also failed to respond to repeated emails about an incident from late 2017 where an undercover police officer’s car was broken into and some of his equipment – including an automatic M4 rifle and ammunition – was stolen.
In October of 2017, Port City Daily emailed Rawley to ask several questions, including what WPD’s protocol for securing weaponry taken home by officers, specifically for high-power weapons like an M4. Other questions included what the protocol was when a weapon was stolen, and a request for any other weapon theft incident reports over the last ten years.
Rawley never responded.
In January, Port City Daily sent a follow-up email to spokeswoman Jennifer Dandron with the same questions. Dandron responded to say she would look into them.
While Dandron did respond to questions about the officer involved – saying “appropriate action had been taken,” but declining to say if the officer remained employed – Dandron never responded to any of the initial questions.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)
Over the summer, it became increasingly clear that GenX was only one of many chemical compounds in the Cape Fear River. While there is little research on GenX, there is even less on these other emerging contaminants.
When the presence of two new chemicals, byproducts of proprietary chemical Nafion, was announced, DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen issued a statement saying the water was still safe to drink — despite the fact that, by Cohen’s own admission, DHHS knew next to nothing about these new chemicals.
Cohen declined to return several phone calls to her office about this seeming contradiction, and both DHHS and the Department of Environmental Quality refused to give a straight answer about how agencies could proclaim the water safe with, as Cohen acknowledged, “very little scientific information.”
In a statement, Cohen acknowledged only that the seeming disconnect was “frustrating to us all.” (You can read the agency’s complete statement here.)
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
After sending numerous emails and spending hours getting transferred from local office to a regional and then the head office of the EPA, Port City Daily still never received much much information from the agency.
In fact, the EPA declined to answer so many questions, Port City Daily ultimately ran a story on the agency’s silence.
Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS)
When active duty Marine Cpl. Edwin M. Estrada was shot and killed in downtown Wilmington, the Wilmington Police Department investigated, but so did the Navy’s own investigative service.
While the autopsy results showed that Estrada was shot twice, once in the face, and once from behind, in the back of the head, District Attorney Ben David ultimately dropped the case against Stephen Roger Hughes II, a former police and Navy security officer. David cited the state’s Castle Doctrine, under which Hughes had claimed self-defense.
At the press conference, David was joined by WPD Chief Ralph Evangelous, who said the department was suspending the investigation.
So, what about NCIS?
According to spokesperson Ed Buice, Estrada’s murder was “a Wilmington PD case. You’ll need to get a comment from them. NCIS has had very little involvement in the investigation.”
Port City Daily sent several follow-up emails to Buice, asking if NCIS was satisfied with the results of the WPD investigation and what NCIS would do if no charges were pressed by the DA’s office.
Buice responded to other emails, but never answered those questions.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.