2017-03-18 / Front Page

Transparency begins with records

BY BILL WILLCOX and MARIA GRANDY
COURIER-TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Most people probably didn’t know that this past week was Sunshine Week, which has nothing to do with the weather but is an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information.

The concept of governmental transparency is important not just for news gatherers but for the average citizen who wants to keep tabs in the most direct way possible on what elected officials are doing.

Person County and the City of Roxboro each have their own methods of maintaining transparency.

The County has been video streaming all its Board of Commissioners meetings live on You- Tube since January of 2008.

“All of these are archived on the county website along with board meeting minutes which go back further than that,” County Manager Heidi York said.

In addition, complete agenda packets are posted on the website several days before commissioner meetings.

“We provide public notices and online meeting calendars as well.,” York said. “In addition, we have conducted Community Conversations around the county to hear from our residents and talk with them about county government. We provide an annual tax bill insert which helps our taxpayers understand how their tax dollars are being used locally for services. We also have very active Facebook and Twitter accounts. Both the GIS and Tax webpages are first rate.”

The GIS page has an interactive map and search feature anyone can use to look up the tax appraisal value of a property by searching an individual’s name. It also, in most cases, has the most recent sales date and price paid.

The county manager also maintains a Sunshine email list, which anyone can join free of charge just by asking. The sunshine list is essentially a oneway listserv in which the moderator can push information out to others in the group.

When the budget is being prepared the Manager’s recommended budget is posted online and a paper copy is available in her office. The same is true of the final adopted budget.

The City of Roxboro also takes measures to keep citizens informed of government activities.

“We maintain multiple social media accounts, with some departments having dedicated social media outlets, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, said City Manager Brooks Lockhart.

“We maintain and update content on www.cityofroxboro.com,” he said. “We post all the agenda packets, which include minutes, on a fairly regular basis. The Information Technology department is in the process of fixing website functions of the calendar, meeting notices, and upcoming events widgets. We intend to utilize them to help spread news.”

But Lockhart admits the agenda packets aren’t always posted with a sense of immediacy. “We don’t have a lot of people making requests for that information,” Lockhart said. “If we did, it would probably be more of a priority.” Part of the City’s challenge, Lockhart said, is that the responsibility for posting that information hasn’t been clearly assigned to a single person.

When a reporter asked about a three-month lapse in posting the information about the public meetings, the missing information was added to the website within about 30 minutes.

The City holds at least one public meeting a month with time scheduled for public comment.

Lockhart said City staff and elected officials rely on the staff of the Courier- Times to help get important information out to the community.

Like the county, Lockhart maintains a sunshine email list as well, providing residents who ask for it with detailed information about the City’s operations.

If you are searching for a recent sale of a home or land in Person County or trying to determine the owners of a certain parcel of land, that information is available on the Register of Deeds website. Dating back to 1951 there are deeds, deeds of trust, plats, foreclosures and other land related documents available online.

Residents can search the records by name of the purchaser or seller. They may also do an advanced search to include what type of record, deed, deed of trust, bankruptcy and foreclosures.

Marriage licenses or death certificates are not available for viewing online, but residents can see those documents in person at the Register of Deed’s office. Hard copies of the vital records are also available in the Register of Deeds Office in bound books.

Public schools, public information

Schools in the county also make information available.

Roxboro Community School managing executive director Natalie Brozy said her school works to be transparent.

“As a public charter school, we take our obligation very seriously to be careful stewards of the funds we receive form our state and local taxpayers. In exchange for this support, we believe in transparency in our operations and access to information,” Brozy said.

Director of Development/ Public Information Phyliss Boatwright says the school will provide people with copies of the budget if they request it, but the school doesn’t post the school’s spending plan online anywhere for public viewing.

Brozy used the recent announcement sent through the email listserv about RCS upcoming community shareholder meeting as an example. The email detailed the event, what will be discussed regarding academic performance, finances and construction at the school. Parents and community members will be able to ask questions in advanced by emailing Brozy at brozynl@roxborocs.org.

The meeting is also another form of being transparent with the public. The board of directors felt the need to hold the meeting so the community could hear directly from them about how the school is progressing.

The school also shares a lot of information on the website.

“We have worked very hard over the past few years to build a robust website that contains information about how we use our resources to support student learning,” she said.

The website has information about the staff of RCS, board members and activities. Information is also sent out via the Daily Dog news bulletin. Board meetings are open to the public and minutes from previous meetings are posted on the website. Social media is also used including Facebook and Twitter. The staff also uses special email blasts for sharing accountability reports like the School Report Card, School Performance Grade and the Charter Performance Framework.

Those reports are also available for the public to pick up at the community information table in the main lobby. Much of that information is also available online at state-maintained websites.

Person County school system interim superintendent Dr. Tom Daly said Person County Schools district websites and individual schools websites have numerous links and announcements for parents and others in the public to see.

The district website lists school board meeting dates, contact information for the district employees as well as upcoming events such as kindergarten registration.

District policies on bullying and discrimination is also available on the site.

Board meeting dates are also on the website and snow make up days are listed.

Board policies and minutes are also available on the site.

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