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Monday, April 6, 2020

Sunshine Week helps shed light on North Carolina government


By Bob Pepalis | Mar 19, 2020


Sunshine Week continues to inform about the public’s right to know what happens in federal, state and local governments.

The annual initiative began Sunday and runs through Saturday, March 21 with an aim to remind government officials that they owe taxpayers accountability and transparency.

While North Carolina ranks high with some advocates for transparency, it only works if they enforce the laws. The state does not follow Florida’s example of imposing criminal penalties to public employees who violate public records and open meeting laws, media lawyer John Bussian told the Carolina Journal.

Bussian represents Carolina Journal and other media outlets.

“With the traditional press in this country less equipped in many places to hold the government accountable the way it historically has done so, the public needs the right to know more than ever,” Bussian told to the Carolina Journal.

The approximately 150 exemptions North Carolina law includes to providing public records make him believe the state is in the bottom five states for transparency.

Mike Tadych, who represents the N.C. Press Association, said the state ranks in the top five.

Advocates agree they see room for improvement.

Some of the exemptions are valid, Gene Policinski, CEO of the Freedom Forum Institute and its First Amendment Center. As taxpayers pay government bills, Policinski said they should get access to the receipts.

The only way to ensure a government agency complies with sunshine laws may be a lawsuit. The expense means these cases usually get left to media companies, Tadych said to the Carolina Journal.

The University of North Carolina System’s $2.5 million deal handing a controversial monument over to a Confederate organization is such an example. DTH Media Group’s lawsuit citing UNC’s violation of the state’s open meeting laws is pending.

Gov. Roy Cooper sits at the center of two other transparency incidents. He kept employees from cooperating with an investigation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal in 2019, the Carolina Journal said. In another bid for transparency, WBTV filed suit in January to get Cooper’s out-of-state travel records from the State Highway Patrol. The state agency claims it doesn’t keep records of those trips.

While incidents with state governments get attention, bigger issues happen at the local level, Brooks Fuller, director of N.C. Open Government Coalition said. Local school boards and school systems don’t have the staff to handle public record requests, unlike state agencies.

The broadly worded exemptions to state public records law covering law enforcement and personnel records help keep the public in the dark.

It’s not just exemptions that harm the public’s right to know. Local boards fail to take complete and accurate minutes of their open and closed meetings even though it’s illegal, Fuller said. Before entering the closed session, public officials must cite a statute to explain why they are doing it. These include discussion of a personnel issue or emergency response. Fuller said when the meeting minutes do become public, the people need the ability to see that the process worked.

More transparency may cost more taxpayer dollars. But Policinski said that’s the cost of having a democracy.

Agencies and local boards need to remember their data doesn’t belong to them, he said. The public has the right to see what public agencies do so they can make smart choices at election time.

“It’s a fight we have to renew every generation, every Freedom of Information Day, every Sunshine Week,” Policinski told the Carolina Journal.

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