The North Carolina Open Government Coalition awarded the 2021 Sunshine Award for a Citizen to Eric Rowell, a Huntersville attorney, for his steadfast commitment to increasing transparency in local government.
Rowell, a North Carolina native and graduate of North Carolina State University, started following transparency issues in local government after graduating from the Charleston School of Law and moving to rural South Carolina.
“You could show up after work and just walk down the street to the town hall and you start seeing government in action, up close and personal,” Rowell said. “Washington is where the excitement is. You see it from a distance, but it doesn’t have the impact that local government has.”
When Rowell moved to Huntersville in 2013, he began requesting public records from Huntersville officials on subjects that ranged from land use to policing. He posted the records with original reporting and analysis on his blog and Facebook pages dedicated to local government and politics.
“As the statute says, these are the public’s documents,” Rowell said. “I wanted to share those documents so that the public could see them and come to their own conclusions.”
In late 2019, Rowell requested access to a 900-page independent audit that the Huntersville police department commissioned to assess its progress on improving policing and public service. But that report remains secret. According to Rowell, the department denied his request and classified the report as confidential personnel record with the exception of a few redacted pages. Rowell continues to lobby the Huntersville Board of Commissioners to publish the report, which cost Huntersville taxpayers $150,000.
According to Rowell, some public officials do not fully appreciate the spirit and the scope of North Carolina’s open meetings and public records laws, but he wants to change that. “I think it’s surprising how many people get elected and immediately seek to keep information from the people that just voted them into office,” Rowell said. “Maybe it’s something that the [University of North Carolina] School of Government should focus on more as part of the new elected official training.”
Rowell’s efforts have materially improved public accountability in small but meaningful ways. When the Huntersville Board of Commissioners debated imposing additional fees for “burdensome” public records requests, Rowell spoke out against the policy. The board tabled the proposal and declined to impose additional fees on citizen access to public information. At Rowell’s urging, Huntersville officials also began publishing meeting agendas that include the basis for convening closed sessions so that the public knows in advance when and why officials are asserting their right to meet behind closed doors.
Rowell sees his transparency efforts as the fulfillment of a citizen’s obligation to support the work of professional watchdogs. “Local journalism has definitely taken a toll,” Rowell said. “I would tell people, ‘Be persistent,’” Rowell added. “But also probably be a little shameless. You can’t be afraid to ask questions. You can’t be afraid to question people in positions of authority.”
To follow Rowell’s transparency work, visit www.ericwrowell.com.