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Charlotte Observer Taps City, County Email Distribution Lists

The Charlotte Observer is using public records law to collect tens of thousands of private citizen email addresses from the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and other municipalities. The request has raised eyebrows at City Hall - and among citizens. If you're subscribed to one of the city or county's email notification systems - say for updates on public meeting agendas - look for an email from the Charlotte Observer in your inbox soon. The newspaper is using public records laws to make the city and county hand over more than 20,000 email addresses. But Observer editor Rick Thames promises the paper won't send you spam - just a friendly email invitation asking people "if they would like to occasionally advise us on how we're reporting and what they would like to know more from their government and more about their community." The Observer and other media outlets frequently request public records from the city and county in reporting on stories. But Charlotte spokeswoman Kim McMillan says this request was different because it came from a staffer at the Observer who has marketing responsibilities. "That is a little bit unusual and unexpected," says McMillan. "And it is a new request for us - we have not had a request of this magnitude." That's why McMillan says the city decided to send a message to everyone on the city's email distribution list Wednesday night. The email warned subscribers their addresses would soon be turned over to the Charlotte Observer. A handful of angry people have already asked to be removed from the city's email list, says McMillan. Former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett got the email and was shocked the Observer would make such a request. "It was a blatant misuse of the "right-to-know" laws by a for-profit company that is looking to expand its readership," says Puckett. If the Observer wants to find more sources for its stories, Puckett says it should just print that request on the front page. To use public records laws to get a hold of tens of thousands of private email addresses may be legal, but it's not very ethical in Puckett's view. Observer Editor Rick Thames is adamant the paper won't use the emails for commercial benefit. "I'm using them to build better journalism," says Thames. "I think it's good for the community, but I don't see it as (benefiting the paper) anymore than it is for people in real-estate to have records of home sales. Do you?" Because of North Carolina's open records laws, anyone can ask for the same email addresses the Observer is getting. "They don't have to be fearful of us," says Thames. "We're not going to misuse their email addresses because as I stated we're only interested in it for journalism reasons." Maybe so, Puckett says. But, "in 10 years it'll be an entirely different group of people there," and who knows what they'll do with the emails. Puckett does agree with the Observer's Rick Thames on one thing: The city and county should make it clearer to people who subscribe to email lists that their addresses could be made public. The City of Charlotte currently buries the warning in a privacy statement few people read. The Observer's request may help change that. "If these types of requests continue, we'll have to look for more places to make that as clear and as noticeable as possible," says Charlotte spokeswoman Kim McMillan. McMillan says the City of Charlotte is also considering following in the footsteps of Wake County which has decided not to hand over email addresses in digital format. Anyone who wants access to the email list as a public record will have to come in and copy them down by hand.