By DAVID BORAKS
Town officials in Cornelius and Davidson say they haven’t complied with The Charlotte Observer‘s January public records requests for email addresses of citizens who subscribe to the towns’ communications lists.
Mayors in both towns said this week while they support Freedom of Information laws, they don’t believe local governments should be required to disclose citizens’ email addresses.
“Our position is that email addresses are like Social Security numbers – private,” Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte said Thursday. However, he added, “I am totally supportive of the Freedom of Information Act. All emails of elected officials on any matter related to town business, not covering personnel or attorney confidential items, should be available to public. They should also be available virtually immediately, not a month later.”
The issue came up at Tuesday night’s Davidson “Commissioner Chat” at the Ada Jenkins Center on Gamble Street when a resident asked town officials if the town had turned over the email addresses as requested by The Observer.
Mayor John Woods said Davidson has not complied with the request. “We took a long hard look at that, and although the letter of the law states that we were required to do that, we decided to delay that until public opinion had a moment to rest on the editor at The Observer. They have gone completely silent since then. They have not withdrawn their request,” Mayor Woods said.
“We ‘re not going to release that unless we are legally forced to, we can assure you of that,” Mayor Woods added.
Davidson Town Manager Leamon Brice said legislation has been proposed to protect citizen email addresses from public records requests, and the town is joining other municipalities in lobbying for the change.
Mayor Woods said the town believes in public records laws. “But we didn’t see that giving up your email address to the Charlotte Observer, to be used for some reason they wouldn’t describe to anyone, was not in keeping with the spirit of that law.”
The newspaper filed the requests with the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, and area towns seeking copies of the email lists. The paper didn’t say what it planned to use the lists for, but since the requests came from an executive outside the newsroom some local residents and officials feared the paper might use them to send spam, or unsolicited emails.
The paper later pledged not to send emails to citizens using the lists, and apologized. But the request still stands, and the newspaper now says it wants to examine the lists for “journalistic reasons.”
Asked if the paper might press the towns that have not complied, Observer Editor Rick Thames said, “We’re not in the habit of asking for a public record and being turned down.” Nonetheless, he added, “I’m not terribly concerned about that. ”
He said other local governments have sent their lists to the paper. “And we’re looking at those and working with them right now. We’re doing this for journalistic reasons,” he said.
Jan. 25, 2011, DavidsonNews.net, “Observer: We apologize, pledge not to send emails.”
Jan. 25, 2011, Charlotte Observer, Rick Thames column, “We heard your concerns on email lists.”
Jan. 24, 2011, DavidsonNews.net, “Update: Editor says Observer may decide not to send emails.”
Jan. 22, 2011, Charlotte Observer, Rick Thames “Inside Story” blog, “Email lists used only for journalism.”
Jan. 21, 2011, DavidsonNews.net, “Town puzzles over Observer request for citizen emails.”
Download a copy of the Observer’s request to Davidson (PDF), CLICK HERE>
North Carolina League of Municipalities, 2011 legislative agenda approved.
Jan. 3, 2011, Charlotte Observer (via NewsObserver.com),“City: Limit access to e-mail addresses.”