Observer won’t use e-mail lists; still requesting names

by Josh Lanier

After receiving several complaints, editors at the Charlotte Observer have decided they will not use the e-mail addresses they requested from local municipalities to stoke reader engagement.

Observer Editor in Chief Rick Thames said in a blog post and he reiterated again Tuesday in a phone interview, the newspaper won’t use the addresses it obtains, but he still plans to request the lists in what will be an exercise of public records laws.

“As I said Saturday, we feel a responsibility to see this ‘public record’ before legislators move to restrict access to it,” Thames wrote in his blog post. “Very often, you only understand the value of a record being public once you’ve seen it. And this is something we have never examined before.”

The move still hasn’t assuaged several local leaders who called the move an exploitation of outdated laws. As of Tuesday, only Mint Hill had turned over its subscriber lists, and others, like Cornelius and Charlotte, are weighing legal options to either withhold or control the release of the information.

The fight began last week when the Observer requested the names and e-mail addresses of anyone who has signed up to received electronic communications from Mecklenburg County municipalities about local news and events. The idea, Thames has said, was to have a way to reach out to those most civic-minded and engaged in the community.

“It made sense to try a few first,” Thames said. “A lot of towns are using this as a means of communicating with their constituents these days, and we thought this might be a good way to evaluate what their constituents think of the those efforts.”

Thames estimated about 100 people have called to complain or ask questions about the Observer’s request, noting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg website has 25,000 e-mail subscribers.

“And every time we explain what we’re doing, they’ve understood it, and most have said, ‘Sign me up,’” Thames said. “… This is more about misunderstanding. This is not a burning issue.”

Before he announced the paper would not use the subscriber list to contact people, Thames said the paper might have used the addresses as part of its ongoing Public Insight Network, which is a series of discussions happening on the paper’s website about some of the biggest issues in Mecklenburg County.

Several public officials chided the Observer for what they called a marketing strategy.

Huntersville Commissioner Charlie Jeter called the move “truly sad” and felt it was an attempt to create a network of sources.

“It really is sad that the state of journalism at The Observer has dropped to such a level of bottom feeding,” he said in an e-mail. “They are either unable or unwilling to do their own footwork. So, instead, they use an archaic part of the North Carolina (Freedom of Information Act) statute to do their research for them.”

Huntersville Commissioner Danae Caulfield said she had several people e-mail her to complain about the requests. She was one of several leaders in the county that turned to state lawmakers for help.

“I sent an e-mail to Rep. Thom Tillis and am hoping that among all the other things that are on his plate that the public records law can be updated to reflect the technological times that we are living in,” Caulfield said. “And that updated legislation will protect private citizens from unknowingly getting added to private businesses’ distribution lists via the towns and a statute that is not clear enough.”

A request to update the state law is what spurred the request in the first place.

Earlier this year the Observer reported Charlotte officials planned to lobby state leaders for an exemption so they didn’t have to give out electronic copies of its subscriber lists. The reason, it was reported, was to keep e-mail spammers from getting access to the site’s subscribers.

The General Assembly already granted Wake and Yadkin counties such an exception. The League of Municipalities also is lobbying to have the subscriber lists removed as public records. The group has made it a top legislative priority.

If anything, the debate has opened up the discussion about what constitutes a public record and what can and should be done with those records.

Charlotte and Mecklenburg County officials have refused to release e-mail addresses from such public enterprise departments as the Charlotte Area Transit System and the solid waste, utilities and storm water departments. They contend those e-mail addresses are protected under public records law.

But Amanda Martin, an attorney with the N.C. Press Association, said the law only protects public enterprises’ billing information, not their e-mail subscribers.

“I don’t believe that those e-mail addresses are billing information,” Amanda Martin, a N.C. Press Association attorney, said. “So I don’t see how they could withhold that information.”

Davidson sent out e-mails to its subscribers apologizing for a note on its website that promised privacy. Town officials have since updated the language on the site.

Staffers Frank Deloache, Courtney Price and Andrew Batten contributed to this report

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