WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) - We discovered a disturbing loophole this week in New Hanover County policy that's allowing County Commissioners to conduct county business in secret on their county cell phone with no accountability.
Right now, any call a commissioner makes on his office land-line, or any email sent from the county server, are considered public documents. The time the phone call was made and the number that was called, along with the contents of the emails, can be accessed by the media or anyone who's interested.
But when we recently requested the county to provide us the cell phone records and text messages from one commissioner's phone, we were told the documents were not available.
The county buys a cell phone for any commissioner that wants one and then gives them a $75 stipend to help pay their bills, according to Mark Boyer, county spokesman. The phone is put in the commissioner's name and the bill goes to their home or office address.
However, according to County Attorney Wanda Copely, the phones were purchased so commissioners would "be able to get texts, emails, etc." We take that to mean the county bought the phones so commissioners could conduct county business on them.
According to our station attorney, the county MUST keep records of any correspondence made by any county commissioner. But County Manager Bruce Shell admits that they are not keeping records on the cell phones.
Which means that a county commissioner can call, text or email anyone regarding county business and there would be no record of their conversation. No transparency, no accountability, no evidence.
County Commission Chairman Jonathan Barfield says he's all for transparency, but feels like making the cell phone records public goes too far. He says in his instance, he uses his phone for both county and personal business and thinks it would be hard to differentiate between what's personal and what's official. He also said that he didn't like the idea of carrying one cell phone for county business because he doesn't have enough room on his belt for two phones.