Franklin County Hot Potato Toss – New Developments

hotpotato

Responsibility and Motivation remain the “hot potato” topics no one quite wants to handle.

In response to the Friday, December 20, 2013, email I sent to Sarah Koonts and others (see 12/20/2013, Note #1, below), at the North Carolina State Archives, regarding the destruction of Franklin County records, an interesting – if not entirely satisfactory – exchange has resulted.

I have published the email exchange below for your perusal. I encourage others to examine the responses and if you feel I have missed anything or arrived at ill-considered conclusions, please let me know ASAP.

Based on this response, here’s my thinking, so far:

1] Ms. Koonts (Director, Division of Archives and Records), generally seems to be laying the blame for the records destruction squarely on the doorstep of the Franklin County Officials (with other fingers pointing toward Angela Harris, Franklin County Manager).
See email 12/23/2013 – Note #2 below: “…the time and date of the destruction isn’t ours to determine.”
See email 12/23/2013 – Note #4 below: “The final decision to destroy the records and not elect to do anything else with them was a county decision, not ours.”

 2] Ms. Koonts did not satisfy me in regards to my question (posed in email of 12/23/2013 – Note #3 below) “… WHY – specifically – Ms. McGee-Langford felt she had the authority to recommend specifically “No other disposition is advised, including donation of the records to a non-government entity for any reason.” (Emphasis is mine.)

If the Heritage Society and Franklin County community were willing to take the risk, finance the salvage and preservation operation – who is the NC Archives (since you found no value in the materials) to prohibit such action – even if your organization felt it was a waste of time and resources?

This statement, “No other disposition is advised, including donation of the records to a non-government entity for any reason.” Just seems to scream to me of absolute intent to prevent – at all costs – the examination of these records by the folks at the Franklin County Heritage Society (or any careful examination by anyone else, for that matter.)

Why?

Why, if the contamination risk was so severe, did NC Archives feel safe in taking possession of fifteen boxes of materials?

Why use such strong language – and language so specifically aimed at preventing critical examination – if the decision really is the county’s to make? (i.e., there really isn’t a major health and safety risk, because the documents are salvageable.)

These two facts argue against one another. The logic is circular.

Ms. Koonts, in her emails to me, soft-pedals the role that NC Archives had in the destruction of these materials. By the letter of the law, she is correct that the final decision is with county officials. But the tone of Ms. McGee-Langford’s letter of October 29, 2013 (see here: Koontz2Chastain-10-29-2013) isn’t soft on the decision at all; “No other disposition is advised, including donation of the records to a non-government entity for any reason.”

That’s a command. And I feel it would be interpreted as such, coming as it did to the Franklin County Clerk of Court, Patricia Chastain, on State of North Carolina letterhead, bearing Governor Pat McCrory’s name at the very top. It looks and sounds like an authoritative command to me.

The over-riding questions I want answers to are these;
1] Who made the decision to destroy the documents?
2] What was the principal motivation for their destruction? (NC Archives says the documents were contaminated but chose to salvage some for it’s purposes, anyway. The Franklin County community was willing to pay for expense of salvage. Why did the remaining records have to be destroyed?)
3] Why was the decision to destroy the documents carried out on a Friday evening, after regular business hours – with no prior notice to any of the interested parties?

I still haven’t gotten to the nut of any of these questions.

So what is next?

1] I think I’m going to drop Angela Harris, Franklin County Manager at note, and see what she’s got to say about this mess.
Specifically I want to know:
– Did she feel as if the decision to retain or destroy the records was hers to make, or did she feel like she’d gotten a mandate from the State?
– Was there other pressure exerted from anywhere else, in regards to destroying the materials?
– Who hired and paid for the Hazmat team? What did it cost? Was the County Board consulted?
– Why was the confiscation of the materials carried out on a Friday evening, after regular official county business hours?

2] I’m certainly going to drop Patricia Chastain a note.

3] And even though she’s already posted a good deal about this, I think it would be worthwhile to try to get a more clear picture from Diane Taylor Torrent at Franklin County Heritage, what she REALLY thinks is going on here.

I would certainly appreciate any additional thoughts and guidance on the issue at hand, and any additional interpretations of the communications thus far. I welcome all comments.

—————————–

Email Communications Between Sarah Koonts and Myself – 12/20/2013 through 12/23/2013

Note from CH Jones to Sarah Koonst, et al. – December 20, 2013 – Note #1

Message-ID: XXX
Date: Fri, 20 Dec 2013 22:55:50 -0500
From: Connie <XXX@gmail.com>
User-Agent: XXXXXXX
To: sarah.koonts@ncdcr.gov, andrea.gabriel@ncdcr.gov,
kimberly.hayes@ncdcr.gov, debbi.blake@ncdcr.gov, paul.dasinger@ncdcr.gov, becky.mcgee-lankford@ncdcr.gov, tom.vincent@ncdcr.gov, laura.hensey@ncdcr.gov, chris.denning@ncdcr.gov, james.sorrell@ncdcr.gov
Subject: Franklin County Records
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Dear Management and Staff of the North Carolina Archives,

As a citizen of the state of North Carolina, with ancestral roots in Franklin County, I was horrified to learn of the destruction of the newly discovered records in the basement of the Franklin County Courthouse.

Since I am a taxpayer and at least in part fund your collective salaries, I feel entitled to a complete and thorough explanation of precisely how this decision was arrived at? Who made it? Why it was carried out on a Friday night with no prior notice? And, finally, what plans your organization has to hold the guilty parties responsible?

The loss – of course – can never be recovered. The damage is done. Nevertheless, the perpetrators and co-conspirators should face the public, explain themselves, and face the consequences of their actions.

(I have a few suggestions, but those sort of punishments went out of fashion with the fall of the Inquisitors.)

This letter is being sent to the Governor’s office, to the N&O, and to WRAL, as well.

I expect a timely response.

— Constance Hall Jones

RESPONSE from Sarah Koonts to CH Jones, et al. – December 23, 2013 – Note #2

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From: “Koonts, Sarah” <sarah.koonts@ncdcr.gov>
To: Connie <xxx@gmail.com>, “Mcgee-lankford, Becky”<becky.mcgee-lankford@ncdcr.gov>, “Vincent, Tom” <tom.vincent@ncdcr.gov>
CC: “Cox, Cary” <cary.cox@ncdcr.gov>
Subject: RE: Franklin County Records
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Ms. Jones,
We received your inquiry below regarding the recent destruction of records held by various offices of Franklin County government.   I can only speak to the involvement of the Division of Archives and Records and our legal mandate to conduct records management programs in conjunction with state and local government offices.  The State Archives is one of the oldest and largest state archival programs in the country and our collections are one of, if not the largest single collection of permanently valuable state and local government records in the country.  We have been utilizing established professional standards for the appraisal of public records for over a century.

In doing so we work with the records creators to identify records of long term or permanent value to the state of North Carolina.  Records falling into this status provide legal, evidentiary, fiscal, or historical evidence of government and its operations.  These records must be either maintained permanently by the creating office or transferred to us for permanent retention.  The records not identified as being permanently valuable are under the care and control of the creating office.

The Department of Cultural Resources is mandated by G.S. 121-5 to conduct a records management program for government offices within the state.  In doing so we work with offices to create records schedules.  These schedules identify each major series of records and then assign a minimum retention period.  Once the minimum retention period is met, the custodial offices can either destroy the records as outlined in the schedule or they can hang on to them longer.  No schedule mandates destruction of any records, it sets a minimum retention.  As stated above, records with permanent value must remain in the office or be transferred here.  If a government office has approved the application of the records retention and disposition schedule, they do not need to notify us of their destructions as outlined by the records schedules.   Records not appearing on a records schedule may not be destroyed without our consent.  In addition, one office may not destroy another’s records.  So for example, the Register of Deeds may not destroy the records from the Clerk of Superior Court.

The records stored in the basement of the Franklin County courthouse originated in a number of county offices.  Many of them were scheduled for destruction as far back as 1964.  Others were draft copies of records duplicated elsewhere.  Still others have very transitory value (check stubs).  Others had reached their scheduled disposition and contained highly confidential, personally identifiable information and should have been protected in secure storage, not co-mingled with records from other offices.  Based on the inventory of the basement storage provided by the county officials, we agreed that the records identified to us as being stored there could be destroyed based on established records schedule.  Beyond that, the time and date of the destruction isn’t ours to determine.  As stated above, a custodial office is always welcome to keep records beyond their retention.

Earlier this year we did remove some civil actions from the county’s custody.  Those are a permanent record and need to be retained here where we can preserve the information in them.

If you have questions about the conditions of the storage room or the conditions of the records destruction, I suggest you refer to Franklin County officials.  I appreciate your concern for these records and for our state’s history.  The staff of the Division of Archives and Records share your concern.  Our careers are dedicated to identifying and saving public records of our state.  We work hard every day to preserve and to make available public records from all across government, and we already have a very large collection of Franklin County records in original and microfilm format.

Thanks,

Sarah Koonts

Sarah E. Koonts
Director, Division of Archives and Records
North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
4614 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC  27699-4614
(919) 807-7339 voice; (919) 715-7274 fax

Email to this address may be subject to the North Carolina Public Records Law (NCGS 132) and may be disclosed to a third party by authorized state officials.


RESPONSE: CH Jones to Sarah Koonts – December 20, 2013 – Note #3

Message-ID: <52B86BD5.6040103@gmail.com>
Date: Mon, 23 Dec 2013 11:59:01 -0500
From: Connie <XXX@gmail.com>
User-Agent: XXXXXX
To: “Koonts, Sarah” <sarah.koonts@ncdcr.gov>
Subject: Re: Franklin County Records
References: XXXXXXX

Ms. Koonts,

I thank you for your thorough and timely response to my inquiry. I’m well aware of the work you and your staff do at the NC Archives, the value of that work, and the professional dedication you apply to it.I’ve spent some time in the archives and I’ve always been impressed with both the personnel and the collections.

I’ve spent the weekend investigating this issue and while I’m far from arriving at any great conclusions, there are at least two point regards to your agency’s involvement that I can’t resolve.

FIRST – On October 29, 2013, Ms. Rebecca McGee-Langford wrote to Franklin County Clerk of Court, Patricia Barnette Chastain with her report and recommendations regarding the materials. In the final two paragraphs she states the following;
“The State Archives of North Carolina has taken possession of 15 boxes of civil and criminal case files, 4 volumes of Justice Dockets, Criminal  Court (1960’s), and 1 volume of Records of Magistrates (1880’s). These records were in better condition than the records that remain in the basement. These records will be preserved by the State Archives.

“In conclusion, we urge county officials to take immediate action to destroy these records. No other disposition is advised, including donation of the records to a non-government entity for any reason. The health and safety issue concerning these records outweighs all other considerations.”

The first paragraph states the NC Archives retained 15 boxes of materials that were “in better condition” than others remaining in the basement. The second paragraph strongly urges “immediate action [to] destroy these records” (i.e. the records remaining in the basement), based on health and safety concerns. Based on the report provided by Sarah C. West, retaining ANY documents is ill-advised due to contamination risk. The documents in the 15 boxes retained by NC Archives were from the basement, had not been decontaminated, and therefore were NOT in better condition than many of the remaining materials slated for destruction. The logic is arbitrary and irrational. Either everything was contaminated beyond salvation, or many (if not most of) the intact documents remaining in the basement could have been salvaged.

Which is it?

SECOND – I question WHY – specifically – Ms. McGee-Langford felt she had the authority to recommend specifically “No other disposition is advised, including donation of the records to a non-government entity for any reason.” (Emphasis is mine.)

If the Heritage Society and Franklin County community were willing to take the risk, finance the salvage and preservation operation – who is the NC Archives (since you found no value in the materials) to prohibit such action – even if your organization felt it was a waste of time and resources?

This question needs to be answered, as I believe it gets to the very core of the outrage. If you can answer this to the community’s satisfaction without using the circular logic so far applied to previous rationalizations, you may go a long way toward deflecting the negativity that has arisen around this issue.

I thank you for your time and attention.

–Connie Jones
Raleigh, NC

RESPONSE from Sarah Koonts to CH Jones, et al. – December 20, 2013 – Note #4

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To: Connie <jones.c.hall@gmail.com>
CC: “Cox, Cary” <cary.cox@ncdcr.gov>, “Cherry, Kevin”
<kevin.cherry@ncdcr.gov>, “Mcgee-lankford, Becky”
<becky.mcgee-lankford@ncdcr.gov>, “Vincent, Tom” <tom.vincent@ncdcr.gov>
Subject: RE: Franklin County Records
Thread-Topic: Franklin County Records
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Ms. Jones,
County officials were advised by my office that, as with any other series of records that were not scheduled to be retained permanently, they could elect to retain or transfer non-confidential records to another local entity, but we advised them against that course of action due to the conditions of the records as reported in Ms. West’s letter.  Based on the inventory provided by the county officials, we saw no other records of permanent value.

The final decision to destroy the records and not elect to do anything else with them was a county decision, not ours.  Franklin County is not alone in storing records in substandard conditions.  On occasion the State Archives has removed permanently valuable records from poor environments, brought them to Raleigh for evaluation and reformatting.  Records that have been damaged by natural disasters in NC have been salvaged for reformatting because the originals posed too great of a threat to retain, but the information needed to be saved.  The records in question from Franklin County will be evaluated and, most likely, reformatted to retain the information.

I apologize if any responses provided by our office seems to have “circular logic” as mentioned below.  The retention and disposition of public records is always a joint effort between our office and the custodial agency.  In the case of Franklin County, that included a number of county offices, as well as the Administrative Office of the Courts, who have ultimate authority over records created by the clerks of superior court.  Each office has a role to play in maintenance of public records, and I can only speak to our agency’s role in this process.  Our office works closely with AOC on issues relating to court records, and we did put great weight on their professional opinion as to the conditions in the courthouse storage areas and impact on the records stored there for decades.

Thanks, Sarah Koonts

Sarah E. Koonts
Director, Division of Archives and Records
North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
4614 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC  27699-4614
(919) 807-7339 voice; (919) 715-7274 fax

Email to this address may be subject to the North Carolina Public Records Law (NCGS 132) and may be disclosed to a third party by authorized state officials.

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5 responses to “Franklin County Hot Potato Toss – New Developments

  • sammyj32

    i must admit that I am enjoying this work of fiction on your behalf. You have provided the genealogical/historical societies sides in-depth and fact beyond question, while calling into question every response you have received from government officials. The State’s responsibility is to preserve the records that have permanent value. To determine which records meet that criteria, they work with county officials and apply professional standards.

    At the end of the day, the decision resides with county officials. To continuously lay the blame for the destruction at the feet of the State Archives despite numerous explanations that the final decisions to destroy the records resides with county officials make it seem as you have an axe to grind with them (the fact that you include all of their full email addresses above while masking yours also smells of the same). No public records in North Carolina can be destroyed without the permission of the creating agency, State County, or Municipality.

    The State Archives can make recommendations, but nothing happens without the creator making the decision. In this case, Franklin County officials made that decision. Please, from this time forward, report the unbiased facts so that an open dialogue can begin which may prevent a similar event in the future.

    And since you have so graciously posted all of the State Archives’ staff’s email addresses, please post yours so that you may fall under the same public scrutiny as the undoubtedly have

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