Effort to toughen open government laws finds new life in NC legislature

jfrank@newsobserver.comFebruary 21, 2013 

— State lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday to toughen the state’s open government laws by making it a crime to deny access to public records and meetings.

Republican state Sen. Thom Goolsby said the tougher penalties are necessary to ensure compliance with the existing law.

“What it will do overnight is change the default from closed to open in both meetings and public records,” Goolsby said. “The bottom line is it’s the public’s money, it’s the public’s documents, these things are being done in the public’s name, and we have a right to know.”

The measure – Senate bill 125 – would make a violation of the state’s sunshine laws a class 3 misdemeanor, the lowest level. A conviction is punishable by a maximum $200 fine and up to 10 days in jail.

A similar bill died two years ago without a hearing, but with Goolsby, a co-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca as the lead sponsors, it is likely to pass the Senate. The sponsors are optimistic about the chances in the House, too.

“This could be the most significant enforcement (of sunshine laws) in this state maybe ever,” said John Bussian, a lobbyist for the N.C. Press Association, which also represents The News & Observer.

About a dozen states make the denial of records a crime, according to an analysis by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and many others include monetary civil sanctions and disciplinary actions.

Goolsby said the impetus for the legislation is a 2009 controversy involving the New Hanover Alcohol Beverage Control Board, which gave large raises to employees without recording the decisions that were made in closed-door meetings, an apparent violation of state law.

Sandy Semans Ross, the former editor at the Outer Banks Sentinel who fought the Town of Kitty Hawk for years about access to legal billing records in a successful case that went to the state’s highest courts, said the legislation would help “send a message that it’s a crime” to violate the sunshine laws.

“There’s not a whole lot of money in the (media) industry to take people to court, so if it’s a crime it would help,” she said.

But Sen. Pete Brunstetter, a Winston-Salem Republican and former county commissioner, is concerned about frivolous records requests and the difficultly of local governments to comply with the law in tight budget times.

“The question isn’t about whether you should comply with the open records law, it’s about whether you impose criminal liability on a public servant,” he said.

Christopher McLaughlin, who consults with local officials through the UNC School of Government, said there is also a question of who is going to be held responsible. He said cases in which government officials knowingly thwart sunshine laws are rare and current law is sufficient.

“We already have the potential penalty of attorneys fees, and that is a pretty big stick,” he said.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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