WECT has been waiting nearly six months for the Town of Oak Island to fulfill a public records request, as we seek to confirm a tip about an alleged incident at an Oak Island Fire Station. We have followed up again and again, asking town leaders to simply fulfill the duty required of them by law, but we still have not received the records we requested.
We first submitted the request at the end of March, shortly after the town abruptly fired Town Manager Tim Holloman. Town Council voted 4-1 to oust Holloman just a year after they hired him. His termination followed hours of closed session meetings by council that month, and no public explanation was ever given for why Holloman was fired.
The day before his termination, WECT received a tip that a civilian had been severely injured at an Oak Island Fire Station, and the circumstances surrounding the injury would have put the town in a very unflattering light. We were told Holloman was made aware of the incident but declined to investigate.
WECT asked Mayor Cin Brochure about these allegations directly on March 30, but she declined to comment. We then asked Interim Town Co-Manager Lisa Stites for e-mails between town officials and fire department employees that might help us determine if anything improper had indeed happened.
Stites indicated she was extremely busy and it might take some time to compile the requested emails. In early April, we followed up with Town Attorney Brian Edes for help obtaining the public emails, but to no avail.
In May, after several more weeks had passed with no apparent progress on our request, we reached out to Stites’ Co-Manager, Rob Gandy, for help getting copies of the requested emails. He referred us back to Town Attorney Brian Edes.
Months passed and we still did not have the records we requested, or even an update from the town on when they might be ready. On July 13, we again sent our request in writing to Town Attorney Edes, but this time used more formal language citing NC General Statute 132 which requires the release of public records.
We also inquired about an additional development that may be connected to the initial allegation. Around the time of Holloman’s departure, the town may have adopted formal guidelines regulating the length of time people can live at Oak Island fire stations.
In our more formal request, we agreed to pay reasonable copying and postage fees, requested a response within 10 days, and reminded Edes that he could be held personally liable for violating open records law. Co-managers Stites and Gandy were copied on our correspondence.
Two days later, Sites responded to our request, to explain that the town, not Mr. Edes as we had previously been told, was in possession of any records responsive to our request. She added that “HIPPA requirements would prevent the Town from releasing any emails about an alleged injury.”
“Unless I hear otherwise from you regarding your request,” Stites continued in her response, “I will proceed in identifying the number of emails which are responsive to your request and then contact you to discuss the appropriate fee.”
We responded that any sensitive medical or personal information could be redacted to address HIPPA concerns, but that law does not give public agencies the right to censor the entirety of an incident that occurred on public property.
Two more weeks passed and we had yet to receive any further communication from Stites. So we reached out again on July 28, reminding the town of its legal obligation to fulfill this request, and asking if it was necessary to escalate this to legal channels to obtain the requested documents.
Stites responded the same day that she expected to have the requested emails by the first few days of August, but we haven’t heard a word from her since.
The initial tip we received indicated staff had been threatened with discipline for speaking about the incident in question, and the injury was never reported to OSHA. The State Department of Labor confirms they have not been asked to investigate any injuries at the Oak Island Fire Department.
Copyright 2016 WECT. All rights reserved.