Some North Carolina agencies slow to turn over details of leaders’ daily schedules
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Jan. 4, 2021, was a busy day for Gov. Roy Cooper.
It was the first business day of the year, just days before he was sworn in officially for his second term as governor.
Cooper’s workday started with an 8:30 a.m. cabinet meeting, followed by a call on COVID-19, a meeting with then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen and a meeting with Chief of Staff Kristi Jones.
All before lunch.
But publicly, Cooper’s office released a calendar with few details.
“Throughout the day, Gov. Cooper will be holding meetings and conducting other business,” his office said in an email sent to news media the day before.
It’s a sentence his office uses frequently.
An analysis of Cooper’s public schedule shows his staff included only this single line – that he was “holding meetings and conducting other business” – for half the working days in 2021.
Opaque details like the public schedule released by the governor’s office underscore the need for the public to have access to calendars for the state’s top executives, transparency advocates say. Such documents can provide valuable insight into the daily work of the state’s most powerful officials – and the work they do on the public’s behalf.
“We want to know what public officials and representatives of the people of North Carolina do with their time, and so one of the ways that we can find that out is by looking at how they build their calendars and how much time they spend on different aspects of their public works,” Brooks Fuller, an attorney who runs the N.C. Open Government Coalition, said in an interview.
“The calendar is one window into that. Some people keep really good ones and some people don’t keep them at all.”
For Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government, the N.C. Watchdog Reporting Network requested the calendars of the state’s top leaders. That included members of the Council of State — the 10 statewide elected executive officials — and each of the cabinet secretaries who run state agencies in Cooper’s administration.
The goal was to gauge how willing government leaders were to let the public see what they do on a daily basis.
Results varied widely. Reporters obtained calendars for all 20 state leaders whose schedules they requested.
Staff for some leaders responded swiftly.
A spokeswoman for Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, for instance, sent his calendar within hours of receiving the request.
Staff for N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette and Commissioner of Labor Josh Dobson sent their calendars within days.
But others took nearly two months to produce the same information.
Cooper’s office produced his calendar on March 10, the same day that N.C. Department of Health and Human Services staff produced the calendar for Cohen.
Staff for Secretary of Commerce Machelle Sanders produced her calendar on March 11.
A spokeswoman for Cooper defended the Governor’s handling of his schedule and the length of time it took to release his calendar.
“Our office posts public events on the daily public schedule and works to release public records in a timely manner,” Deputy Communications Director Mary Scott Winstead said in a statement.
As of March 14, Attorney General Josh Stein’s office has only produced half of his calendar. Spokeswoman Nazneen Ahmed said their office has seen an influx in public records requests, which delayed its response.
“In the past six months, our office has received 145 public records requests, and to date we’ve responded to 114 of those requests,” Ahmed said in an email.
She did not provide statistics for previous periods to compare the current volume of requests. But Ahmed said some records – like this one for the calendar of the state’s top lawyer – take longer to review.
“Because our office serves as legal counsel to other state agencies and Attorney General Stein’s calendar includes private, privileged information, we must conduct a full review for content and materials that cannot be shared publicly,” Ahmed said in an email.
Fuller, the open-government coalition attorney, said disclosing public employees’ calendars should be straightforward.
“A calendar is a pretty easy control print function to turn that document into a record that can be disseminated to media outlets or any interested citizen,” Fuller said.
Some agencies made substantial redactions to their leader’s calendar.
Secretary of State Elaine Marshall’s spokeswoman said the calendar produced for Marshall contained a number of personal appointments that are not subject to the Public Records Act.
A lawyer for the N.C. Department of Public Safety claimed the calendars for then-Secretary Erik Hooks and current Secretary Eddie Buffaloe contained numerous entries that qualify as personnel information.
For Cooper, his calendar provided some lighthearted insight, too. Each UNC basketball game was noted on his calendar, with opponent and location.
This story was jointly reported and edited by Laura Lee, Kate Martin, Frank Taylor and Jordan Wilkie of Carolina Public Press; Sara Coello of The Charlotte Observer; Tyler Dukes and Lucille Sherman of The News & Observer; Cathy Clabby of The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer; Nick Ochsner of WBTV; Michael Praats of WECT; Travis Fain and Ali Ingersoll of WRAL; and Jason deBruyn of WUNC.
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