‘Sunshine’ laws need more light in NC

Posted by Mary Cornatzer on December 4, 2013 

The majority of North Carolinians – 65 percent – are unaware that the state has “sunshine laws” that require certain records and government meetings be available to all residents, according to an Elon University poll.

The poll also found that people are more likely to trust their local officials than those elected to the state legislature or Congress.

Kenneth Fernandez, an assistant professor at Elon and director of the Elon Poll, said that has to do with familiarity and information.

“Residents are more likely to have contact with local officials, and there is far more media attention on the failings of state and federal governments,” Fernandez said in a statement.

Highlights:

• When pollsters asked if NC state government was less open with public records now than it was in the previous five years, 41 percent said less open, compared to 33 percent who said more.

• When asked if they trusted government to do what is right “most of the time,” the locals came out on top with 41 percent say yes compared to 23 percent for state and 11 percent on the D.C. level.

• 79 percent agree that it’s important to know from whom elected officials receive campaign contributions.

• 68 percent believe all government meetings should be open to the public.

• 60 percent of respondents agreed it’s important to get any document they want from the government.

• 64 percent agreed that sometimes government officials are justified in keeping some information a secret.

• The most requested documents among are deed/real estate records, birth certificates and criminal/police records.

• Asked what should be public, 87 percent said records identifying the type, amount and location of hazardous chemicals. Also high on the list was government expense accounts (85 percent), public employees’ salaries (75 percent), gun permit applications (60 percent), property tax records (53 percent) and criminal records 78 percent).

• But there are things that people think shouldn’t be public, like voting records (63 percent), political party affiliation (58 percent), public utility records such as how much water a person uses (62 percent) and the work emails of government employees (58 percent).

• 51 percent said public records should cost nothing to obtain. But if there is going to be a fee, the average suggested was $14.04 per half hour.

State law allows a “special service charge” on any request that takes more than 30 minutes. The Associated Press recently reported that the McCrory administration has issued some invoices totaling hundreds of dollars for requests of digital copies of emails of the type that past administrations provided for free.

AP also reported the McCrory administration claims producing copies of emails requires specialized assistance from IT workers. It has charged $54.47 an hour for such requests, and may hire temp workers, at a cost of $21.73 an hour, to handle other public records requests.

The poll was conducted landlines and cell phones and surveyed 732 residents between Nov. 15-18. It has a margin of error of 3.62 percentage points.

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