SURF CITY — Over the summer a certain issue was discussed among Surf City councilmembers — the behavior of Camp Lejeune Marines visiting the coastal town’s beaches.
According to the recorded minutes of an August 6 council meeting, Councilman Jeremy Shugarts gave an overview of a meeting with Camp Lejeune officials regarding “the actions of marines on our beach.”
Several months later, on October 11, Port City Daily sent a public records request for any email correspondence between town leaders and any officials from the Marine base discussing the matter.
More than two months later, the town has not yet complied with the request, although North Carolina public records law requires local governments to respond “as promptly as possible.”
In late October, the town clerk cited difficulties stemming from the town’s IT department moving to a different location — the town still operates out of temporary rooms in the Surf City Community Center after Hurricane Florence severely damaged the town hall — and the reviewing of roughly 1,000 emails to ensure that no confidential information is included.
On Tuesday, Port City Daily again reached out to the town and was told the request had been forwarded to town attorney Brian Edes for his review.
Although the North Carolina Public Records law states that there is no time limit for a response, it also states that a custodian of public records shall make them available “at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision by any person.” It was designed to guarantee the public had access to public records of the state’s governmental bodies.
On Friday, Port City Daily sent an email to Edes and shared the same email with each councilmember, requesting delivery of the records by the end of the day. Although Edes did not respond, the town clerk, Stephanie Hobbs, wrote that the attorney “has the list of emails under review to ensure the town does not cross any legal or ethical boundaries before releasing such requested emails.”
She also included a document published by the UNC School of Government on the state’s Open Records Law. Although Hobbs did not clarify the specific section of the 11-page document that pertained to her response, one section analyzes the law’s mandate for public records to be inspected “at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision” and copies to be provided “as promptly as possible.”
“The law does not set a specific time within which an agency must respond,” the document states. “What constitutes a reasonable or prompt response will depend on the nature of the request and the available personnel and other resources available to the agency that receives the request. A prompt response to a fairly simple records request ranges from immediate, within a few hours, or within a day or two.”
Port City Daily requested any emails between officials of the town and Camp Lejeune with three search keywords to be used in the request, in the period between May and September of this year — a relatively simple request when compared to other public record requests sent by Port City Daily this year.
The UNC document goes on to say that the complexity of the request, how large the public agency is, and whether any part of the records must be redacted can affect what is considered a prompt response. But its final sentence on the matter outlines the School of Government’s opinion clearly.
“Unless a request is extraordinary, however, a custodian probably should respond within a week or two at most,” the document writes.
This is not the first time a town that Edes represents has been slow to answer a request from Port City Daily.
Edes is also the town attorney for both Wrightsville Beach and Oak Island. Most recently, Edes instructed Wrightsville Beach’s elected leaders not to respond to Port City Daily when it was discovered the town was apparently not in compliance with state law regarding entering closed sessions. Edes later issued his own response on their behalf.
Edes also attempted to redact public information that linked former Oak Island Mayor Cin Brochure’s home to child pornography charges filed against her son. When Port City Daily protested the redaction, Edes held firm, saying he would be happy to defend his decision in court. After reaching out to the District Attorney’s office, Edes released the information.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815