News | March 13, 2019

It’s “Sunshine Week,” but SELC focus on public records is year-round

It’s Sunshine Week across our SELC region. And while we are enjoying the extra hour of evening sun gained by setting the clocks ahead, that’s not what this is about.

Sunshine Week is a celebration largely marked by journalists to bring attention to state and federal public-records laws. You’ve likely read editorials in your newspapers about how reporters use the Freedom of Information Act – or similar “sunshine laws” – to gain access to public information, often from reluctant government agencies.

When citizens are informed, government works better.

Kym Hunter, Senior Attorney

At SELC, our attorneys routinely rely on the Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA for short), to peek behind closed doors and to pry from government offices public information they’re not excited to share.

“It’s one of the most useful tools in our toolbox,” says Kym Hunter, an SELC attorney in the Chapel Hill office who routinely uses public records acts. “When we get public documents – and it’s not always easy – they frequently reveal what agencies don’t want the public to see, like how an important decision was made to benefit wealthy and connected developers rather than the citizens.”

The spirit behind public-records laws is simple: Records generated on matters of public interest by publically funded agencies are public property, and accordingly the public should have access to them. But in reality, governments and governmental agencies are often loathe to provide records that reveal what’s happening behind the scenes.

For example, SELC public-records claims have unearthed:

  • A utility’s questionable claims that a complete cleanup of toxic sludge in a river was impossible and therefore not supported by federal regulators. After released records debunked that claim, the full cleanup option is back on the table.
  • Records from a state highway department showing that a proposed $1 billion toll road would actually send jobs out of state. SELC used this information to help stop the destructive project.
  • Internal utility records that contradicted a utility’s public claims that buried coal ash posed no threat to drinking water.
  • Communications that showed a utility was pressuring a federal agency to hurriedly approve a pipeline permit in a timeframe that suited the utility. With those records as evidence, SELC successfully argued in court to have the permit overturned.
  • Documents that showed a federal agency was handling cases involving endangered red wolves in a much different way than it had previously, and in a manner that was harmful to the shrinking population. The records also showed how one of the endangered animals was taken from its home, released elsewhere, and killed by a car.
  • Utility records that showed coal ash pits in Virginia were leaking toxins into public waters. The records were key evidence in court, helped change public perception, and were part of the background that led state lawmakers to successfully push for excavation of the utility’s ash pits.

For both journalists and local citizens, forcing governmental agencies to divulge these kinds of records can be wildly expensive. Governments have been accused of vastly inflating the cost of compiling and copying records – the costs must be paid by the requestor, often in advance – in hopes that the person asking drops the matter. And individuals and small groups usually can’t afford the legal representation to push back against abuses.

SELC frequently steps in to make sure public access is preserved, taking the government to court where necessary. Hunter pursued a case like that against then-North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory. The settlement led to the state dropping the high fees and providing better public access to crucial documents.

Hunter also used public-records laws to uncover that Trump administration EPA officials had crafted harmful environmental policies after cozying up with the Heartland Institute, a science-denying conservative “think tank” that advocates for fossil-fuel industries.

SELC has numerous pending lawsuits demanding the Trump administration hand over documents relating to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, regulatory roll backs, management of our National Forests, and other issues.

“Of all the work I do at SELC, using transparency laws to throw sunlight on back-room decisions is some of the most rewarding,” Hunter said. “Getting these records out in the open is critical to having open and honest conversations with citizens about big projects that will affect them. When citizens are informed, government works better.”