Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Local activists who've used public records to hold government's feet to the fire

by Jon Elliston, David Forbes and Jason Sandford in Vol. 16 / Iss. 34 on 03/17/2010

March 14 to 20 is this year's Sunshine Week — an annual, nationwide celebration of the critical importance of government openness and freedom of information. Discovering and reporting the inner workings of government is part of Xpress' mission, so it's a week we take special note of.
Trying to change a channel: Davyne Dial, who pushed for the release of records she believed public-access station URTV is obligated to reveal. Photos by Jonathan Welch (unless otherwise noted)

Year round, we maintain the Xpress Files, an online archive of government documents on everything from local development rules to police reports to environmental-impact statements (see mountainx.com/xpressfiles). It's something we typically highlight during Sunshine Week, but this year, we decided to turn the spotlight on local activists who pried open public records and used them to advance their respective causes. Here's what they had to say.
URTV dispute

Who: Davyne Dial, former URTV producer and board member

What was your mission, and how did you get involved?

"While on the board, we had questions about the financial records; we wanted management to be a little more forthcoming. When I started asking questions, I was sent an e-mail by the board president [Jerry Young] telling me I was suspended." Dial was later removed in a controversial vote by URTV members.

How did you get the public records?

"We still haven't gotten them. Through an attorney we requested the records, and their attorney said they didn't have to provide the records. We pressed hard, lobbying City Council [which, along with Buncombe County, oversees the public-access channel]."

What obstacles did you encounter?
"It was such a fight, and we encountered such hostility. I was suspended, then removed. We started to ask: Why this fight over some basic records? The fight still continues."

What did you find in the records, and what did you do with that information? What impact has it had?

"We're still waiting on the records, but in the city's new management agreement, they clamped down with requirements that URTV be open about its meetings and records. I think society would be better if things were more open and transparent, and this was my way of pressing for that wall to open up just a crack." After Dial and other activists pressed for greater openness, URTV also began allowing its meetings to be filmed, abolished a controversial secrecy oath for board members and started posting more meeting minutes online.

Any advice for other activists seeking to find and use public records to advance their cause?

"I suggest that they think carefully about what a whistle-blower can expect and about their next steps when they face opposition. You're going to get a lot of hostility. But if you're in the right, stay the course anyway. You have no good reason to back down."

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