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Farewell to the list of lists: What happened to NC's index mandate and why it matters

Senate Bill 131 passed in 2017 -- repealing the mandate that government agencies maintain an index of all the databases they keep on file.
NC Legislature
Senate Bill 131 passed in 2017 — repealing the mandate that government agencies maintain an index of all the databases they keep on file.

North Carolina public records law used to mandate that all public agencies create an index of computer databases compiled or created by the agency. The idea was to keep up with the increasing number of databases governments use to organize, store, and access public information. This index helped the public and media agencies navigate which databases were being used — and what types of records were being kept.

At the risk of slightly oversimplifying things, the database index required by law was effectively a list of lists. Here’s what was typically included in the index: a list of data fields, a description of the format or record layout, how often the database was updated, and if any data fields were restricted to the public.

However, in 2017, the requirement was repealed by Senate Bill 131, sponsored by current state senators Norman Sanderson and Bill Rabon. The bill was something of a regulatory omnibus, with over 40 pages of tweaks to state law; it passed in the Senate 35-13 and 90-26 in the House. The votes mainly fell on partisan lines, with mainly Democrats against the bill and Republicans in approval of it.

House District 18 Representative Deb Butler was one of the dissenting votes on SB131, but not initially because of any concerns about government transparency.

“I voted against the Bill for a variety of reasons. It lowers the efficiency standards for certain types of buildings and it has some objectionable items related to well water,” Butler said.

She added about the removal of the index requirement, “I was unaware that the Bill would create a limitation on the press’ ability to access certain communications so that would have been yet another reason to vote ‘No.’”

WHQR reached out to Sanderson, who’s served six terms in the Senate, representing eight counties in eastern North Carolina, and was the primary sponsor of the bill, to ask his perspective on removing that requirement, but has yet to hear back.

Brooks Fuller is the director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and an assistant professor of journalism at Elon University.

He said the repeal of the index portion of the law “can kind of obscure from the public what all an agency might have. And it's sometimes you have to do a little bit more needle in a haystack looking around for information that can be useful.”

Fuller notes the change in the law did not make government databases confidential, and current public records law still states if a particular record is in a database, and it’s not protected by personnel or other laws, then the public agency would have to provide it when requested. Reporters, or just interested members of the public, can “get an entire copy of a database from a public agency absent any confidential or privileged information," Fuller said.

Further, public records law clearly states that if confidential or privileged information is comingled with public information — the agency has to separate or redact those parts at no cost to the public.

But now, without the public index, the difficulty for reporters, and the public in general, is having to rely on internal sources to identify which databases exist and what records they compile. In essence, when it comes to the data stored by local government, people don't know what they don't know — and they have to rely on tips, or help from the government itself.

It's worth noting that, while the index is no longer required, if a local government does maintain one — it's a public document. That's according
to Amanda Martin of Duke University’s First Amendment Clinic.

"If they have indexes, they are public," Martin said. "It’s not that they now are exempt from the law but just that there isn’t an affirmative requirement to keep those.”

And, even when there isn't an index on file to map out what records a local government maintains, Fuller said that government officials should work with the public on describing what records they keep.

“Any public servant who is taking their responsibility to citizens really seriously should just answer those questions about the types of data that their agency keeps. I mean to obscure that or to refuse to answer that sort of question just isn’t good faith or fair play. But yeah, I wish the that the obligation were a little bit more affirmative so that it was very clearly publicized the types of information that's available to people,” Fuller said.

Why a story on the index repeal now?

WHQR initially began looking into local database indexes during Sunshine Week, a news-focused national initiative that highlights issues with government transparency that usually takes place in early to mid-March.

The idea to investigate Cape Fear region’s public agencies and their indexes came from the ‘Open Government Guide’ from the North Carolina Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which noted the requirement for local governments to maintain the database index.

WHQR then requested these indexes from New Hanover County, Cape Fear Community College, University of North Carolina Wilmington, and New Hanover County Schools on February 15. However, shortly thereafter, Director of CFCC’s Media Relations Christina Hallingse replied that “the requirement for state agencies to maintain an index of all databases was repealed by North Carolina Session Law 2017-10.” CFCC confirmed in response to a follow-up email that the college did not maintain an index.

University of North Carolina Wilmington, New Hanover County Schools, and the City of Wilmington also responded to requests by saying they did not maintain database indexes.

What did the indexes look like? New Hanover County provided an example

New Hanover County provided an index of the close to 120 databases they keep on file. Of those, about 100 are in current use — the rest are archived or “deprecated.”

Departments like IT, the Sheriff’s Office, and Health and Human Services maintain several software programs that help them track things like applications for employees, work orders, building permits, medical information, and mapping files for geographic information systems (GIS).

Below: Part of New Hanover County's sizeable index of databases.

Part of New Hanover County's index.
Part of New Hanover County's index.
Part of New Hanover County's index
Part of New Hanover County's index

For example, the county uses Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) to access GIS capabilities. They use this system to track 911 emergency response, building permits, property records, and planning and zoning. This software costs the county an average of $78,330 annually. Additionally, the Laserfiche Document Archive, which hosts the county’s agendas and minutes, costs $48,323 annually.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR