Sunshine Request celebrated its second birthday this March by receiving the 2019 Sunshine Award for Advocacy given by the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. The website, a project of PRC Apps
by Code for Asheville members Patrick Conant, Jesse Michel, Lauren
Showfety, and Holden Mesk, offers the public a simple, user-friendly and
anonymous way to submit public records requests. The group talked about
the website’s history and future at our March Community Night.
Patrick started filing records requests as part of BeLoved Asheville’s work on overpolicing of the homeless in 2016. While reporting on social media on his efforts and the difficulties he was running into, he noticed that many people were interested but few had made records requests themselves. This inspired PRC to create Sunshine Request, in hopes of making a process that could be intimidating or confusing available to many more people.
Patrick and Jesse developed the website to launch in March 2017, and since then it has received more than 370 requests. The most popular topics? Police and sheriff department data, information about school systems and school boards, and topics that are being highlighted by the local media at a given moment. Personnel rosters, salary information, city policies, and zoning permits are also common requests. The record results are posted on the website, so visitors can see all the requests that have been made and the government responses.
The website is not automated, as some might expect. The actual requests are still filed individually by Lauren and Holden, after Sunshine Request receives them. And increasing numbers of requests are submitted for areas outside of Buncombe County and even outside North Carolina, meaning the laws governing public records may be different than those in place here.
These requests may need more research and staff time before they’re successfully completed. Some government entities, especially school systems, are also reluctant to fulfill requests electronically, without fees attached, or at all, and these problems are easier to address after Sunshine Request has built a relationship with a local entity. Since Sunshine Request currently receives no outside funding or support, continuing to scale up beyond Buncombe County may be challenging.
Another challenge is the increasing number of problematic requests. Sunshine Request is currently formulating policies to address the rising number of requests that they don’t feel they can ethically include on a public website. Many of these involve criminal record checks, police calls for service at specific addresses, or other personally identifiable information about private citizens. The results of these requests could violate the privacy of crime victims or make people vulnerable to harassment. Other requests include inflammatory language or statements about the request topic that are or might be untrue, exposing Sunshine Request to libel charges. Since requests are processed by hand, filtering out opinions and potentially libelous material while still posting the request itself would require additional staff time, so for now, these requests are usually redacted in full and refused by Sunshine Request. They’re still looking for better ways to make the process and reasons for refusal transparent without allowing the site to be used as a forum for anonymous attacks.
If you’ve watched a video of a local government committee meeting, chances are you were seeing another side of Sunshine Request. The city and county stream only a limited number of meetings, mostly those of the full City Council or County Commission. Sunshine Request has been filling the gap with the Community Playback program, which began by streaming meetings of the City’s Public Safety Committee and Citizens’ Police Advisory Committee. When the public asked for more, Sunshine Request provided. Today, Holden is streaming 5 to 10 government meetings a month, all of which can be found via Sunshine Request’s Facebook page.
Like to help? If you’d like to stream a government meeting, please give Sunshine Request a heads-up. And keep an eye on the website: Soon they’ll be adding a tool that allows visitors to tag requests, to make searching the list easier as it continues to grow.