When I stopped by a tiny windowless room in the basement of City Hall in Charlotte — a place reporters who worked at The Charlotte News called the “foreign office” — the door was closed.
The three News reporters who covered city and county governments, courts and cops, worked there. It had been my office for three years before I was moved to the downtown office and I don’t remember us ever closing the door during the day. We certainly didn’t lock it.
I heard someone say, “Just a minute.” When the reporter who had taken my place covering the city finally opened the door I could see he was relieved to see it was just me.
He closed and locked the door again and began unbuttoning his shirt — it was puffed out, like he had gained 25 or 30 pounds — and began pulling out what looked like letters, torn in half, and piling them on his desk.
He was one happy guy because he had accidently discovered a cache of discarded government documents.
He had gone to the bathroom in the Men’s Room on the third floor of City Hall, washed his hands, dried them with a paper towel, and tried to stuff it in the waste paper basket, but there was no room. It was full, but not full of paper towels. Sticking out the top was what looked to him like letters, reports.
Charlotte Mayor Stan Brookshire was going out of office soon and someone was cleaning out his files. Papers that had been discarded in his waste basket had been emptied into the much larger trash can in the Men’s Room.
The documents were public records* under North Carolina law. Still, they were the kind of records that were difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. You can’t ask to inspect, or copy, a letter or report you don’t know exists.
Working together we emptied the trash can in the Men’s Room, took everything to my colleague’s apartment, and taped the letters and other documents back together.
We were rewarded with leads on two or three OK stories. But the best was yet to come.
My colleague called me the next week and told me the good news: the trash can in the third floor Men’s Room was the mother lode. A janitor emptied the waste baskets from the offices of the mayor, the city manager, and their secretaries into that big trash can every day.
What a source! We named it the “Good Fairy.”
* North Carolina General Statute 132.1:
“‘Public record’ or ‘public records’ shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions.
“The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are property of the people.”
There are a number of exceptions to G.S. 132.1, for example: medical records; tax returns; SBI investigative reports; the state auditor’s audit work papers; and certain personnel records of public employees.