Avila honored for promoting open government

mcassella@newsobserver.comFebruary 28, 2014 

The North Carolina Press Association honored a commitment to government transparency Thursday night, granting an award that celebrates First Amendment freedoms to state House Rep. Marilyn Avila.

At a ceremony in Chapel Hill, Avila, a Republican from Raleigh, received the Lassiter Award, an honor given to a non-journalist who has worked to promote ideals that journalists themselves value, including open government and widespread protection under the First Amendment.

The press association said Avila was chosen for her work in fighting legislation last year that would have allowed some counties to post notice of public meetings online only, rather than in their local newspaper, as is currently required.

“We keep talking about transparency in government, and to me, this was a move in the opposite direction,” she said.

The legislation was backed by many Republican leaders in the House and Senate. Opponents said the proposed law ignored a technology gap and hurt the public’s right to know. Todd Allen, who is publisher of The Wake Weekly, nominated Avila for the award. Allen said the law was part of a natural tendency people have to keep quiet about what they’re doing.

“But I’ll tell you, well, if you’re a public servant, that’s not what you get to do,” he said.

“(Avila) stood in the gap for us in a major way.”

Political courage

John Bussian, legislative counsel to the press association who also nominated Avila, said her willingness to take on this fight and speak out against Republican leaders was remarkable, “an amazing sight to behold.”

“It was an act of political courage as much as advocacy,” he said.

The NCPA said the award is one of the highest honors it gives, and it’s not given every year. The last recipient was Cathy Packer, a media law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, who received it in 2010.

But Avila said she was simply doing what she felt was best for her constituents.

“It always feels kind of strange when you get recognition from lots of different sources. ... It’s kind of like, ‘Well, I’m just doing my job,’ ” she said.

“But I realize for some people it’s very important when someone takes up their cause, and they really appreciate it when they make progress. So it’s kind of humbling, that’s for sure. You realize how many people’s lives you impact when that happens.”

Avila said it’s likely that the bill she fought last year will be brought up next session as well, but she’ll do the same thing all over again.

“The one thing you find out in the General Assembly early when you get down there is nothing dies – it only goes comatose for awhile,” she said.

“You’ve got to be vigilant. You’ve got to keep your eyes and ears open.”

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