News-Journal sues Hoke County

By Catharin Shepard • Editor • After months of asking for and not receiving requested public records, The News-Journal filed a lawsuit Monday in Hoke County Superior Court asking the court to order Hoke County to turn over the records.

The News-Journal and owner Jessica Brown filed the lawsuit under North Carolina’s Public Records Law, N.C. General Statute § 132.

The News-Journal has made multiple public record requests since September 2023 that Hoke County government officials have repeatedly ignored.

“Plaintiff, BROWN PUBLISHING LLC (d/b/a, The News-Journal), requested public records from Defendant, Hoke County Government, relevant to investigating the county’s use of funds for: 1) public building construction projects; 2) paying the stipends, travel expenses, and any other monies to Hoke County Board of Commissioners members; 3) purchasing or constructing electronic and static billboards and taking in revenue from selling advertising space on the billboards; 4) installing, and removing bus stops in Hoke County,” the lawsuit stated.

The News-Journal Publisher Jessica Hendrix Brown said in a statement that the newspaper pursued the lawsuit on behalf of citizens’ right to public records.

“Most of the record requests that The News-Journal has submitted have been directly related to relevant concerns that have been brought to our attention by members of this community. We aren’t asking for answers for our own benefit, we’re asking because the people that work, live and spend their money here in Hoke County want to know how their tax dollars are being spent,” she said. “When these requests are ignored and disregarded, it is not a reporter or journalist that government officials are ‘sticking it to.’  It’s the people. The taxpayers. The voters.

We didn’t file this lawsuit because we believe it’s just The News-Journal’s right to know, this lawsuit is because it is the public’s right to know.”

The lawsuit outlined the records requested and why the News-Journal has been asking for them.

“1. Hoke County is constructing or has constructed multiple major public facilities projects in recent years, to include the James A. Leach Aquatic and Recreation Center (JALARC) located on U.S. Highway 401; and a new Hoke Area Transit Service (HATS) center, located on CC Steele Road. Both of these facilities are multimillion dollar projects involving public funds. The county took on debt for JALARC, while the HATS center involved grant funds. It is vital that citizens of Hoke County whose local, state and/or federal tax dollars are paying for these projects be allowed access to documents showing how much money was spent on these projects, where it was spent, and to whom it was paid, in the interest of ensuring none of the funds were misused, mishandled, or redirected, and that required processes were followed.

2. The five elected members of the Hoke County Board of Commissioners receive a stipend and travel pay for serving on the board. The Plaintiff was told, in person, by a county official that commissioners had also been receiving a Christmas bonus typically given to county employees. The Plaintiff is attempting to verify this through documents. The voters of Hoke County have a right to know how much, and what monies, elected officials receive for serving on the board.

3. Hoke County Government owns at least one digital billboard on which it sells advertising space. In the 2024 partisan primary election, citizens observed Commissioner James A. Leach running a campaign advertisement on the county-owned electronic billboard. The Plaintiff is attempting to verify that this was properly paid for while also investigating how much income in total the Defendant has obtained from selling advertising on the billboard, and where that money has gone.

4. The Defendant received funding to install bus stops for HATS. Some of those bus stops were later removed after installation. The Plaintiff has requested information about the cost involved with the installation and later removal of those bus stops to inform the public of how that money was spent.”

“Through their reporting, Plaintiff seeks to inform the public about how public funds were spent. Defendant has unlawfully impeded Plaintiff’s efforts, responding to Plaintiff’s requests for public records by ignoring multiple requests made between September 2023 and April 2024. Over eight months have passed since Plaintiff first requested the public data and records necessary for their planned reporting, and Defendant still continues without any lawful justification to withhold public records that are subject to timely production under North Carolina’s Public Records Law,” the lawsuit stated.

“As of the filing date of this complaint, the Plaintiff has not received any of the records requested…nor any explanation for why they have not been provided; nor any notice that the requests have been denied; nor any reason for denial; nor any request for Plaintiff to provide payment for copies of the documents.”

The specific records requested include the following:

1. Documents/invoices/purchase orders showing the money spent on designing and building the James A. Leach Aquatic and Recreation Center, including site packages, and all change orders.

2. Documents showing all monies given to the Hoke County Board of Commissioners members from January 1, 2019 to January 1, 2024 to include their stipend, travel, and anything else.

3. Documents showing all income/payments to the county from billboards owned by the county, from January 1, 2020 to March 5, 2024, to include who made the payments.

4. Documents/invoices/purchase orders for construction of digital or traditional billboards, by the county.

5. Documents/invoices/purchase orders showing the money spent on designing and building the HATS facility on CC Steele Road, including grant award letters, site packages, and all change orders, and contracts for the work.

6. Documents/invoices/purchase orders showing the money spent on purchasing, installing, uninstalling, moving the HATS bus stops, and contracts for the work.

“The North Carolina Public Records Law, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1(b), states that all “public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government . . . are the property of the people,” and as such, “the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information for free or at a minimal cost.” The Public Records Law, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-6(a), provides that “[e]very custodian of public records shall permit any record in the custodian’s custody to be inspected and examined at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision by any person…”

“Under the Public Records Law, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-6(a), (c), the custodian must furnish requested public records “as promptly as possible,” and “[n]o request to inspect, examine, or obtain copies of public records shall be denied on the grounds that confidential information is commingled with the requested non confidential information.”

The News-Journal served a summons to Hoke County government by certified mail.

The lawsuit additionally requests payment of attorney’s fees and court costs.

The Hoke County Board of Commissioners announced Wednesday a special called meeting set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, April 30 to discussing pending litigation.

A copy of the lawsuit document is below. This copy is not stamped as filed, but the filed copy is in the News-Journal’s possession and filed at the courthouse. Lawsuit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.