Complying with NC open meetings, public records laws shouldn't be difficult

March 18, 2014 

The late Pete Seeger used to sing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, every day, every day, gonna let my little light shine.”

Some public officials in North Carolina know the tune, but they can’t follow the lyrics.

This is Sunshine Week, during which advocates of open government celebrate the blessing of open records. Those advocates include The News & Observer and other news organizations that represent the public as they pursue in specific the disclosure of public records that the people have a right to see.

How important is the timely release of records? The N&O cited a number of cases in which the opening of records led to important information for the public: data on how community college presidents were structuring their compensation packages to bolster their pensions, how the Raleigh Housing Authority was buying expensive meals for board members at Christmastime, how the state Department of Health and Human Services was handsomely paying two consultants and how much in settlement money was paid to a man wrongly jailed in a psychiatric hospital.

And, yes, public records also have been important in The N&O’s continued reporting on the athletics/academic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A right for all

Make no mistake. This is not about just news organizations. All members of the public have the right to make requests of public agencies for records that are by law their right to have.

But as The News & Observer’s Joseph Neff reported, in far too many cases, it takes months to get records that properly should be offered in weeks at most.

Both The N&O and WRAL-TV have requested that the state Department of Health and Human Services release emails connected to the work of Carol Steckel, who briefly was the department’s Medicaid manager before she resigned. But six months after those public records requests were made, no emails have been produced.

State law affirms that emails to and from the accounts of public officials are part of the record.

Debbie Crane, who was for 19 years a public information officer in state government and a veteran of DHHS, labeled the delay “ridiculous.” She said, “Email is a pretty easy request to deal with.”

The fairest of questions

Here’s the public’s understandable reaction when state officials delay or simply avoid the release of public data: What do they not want us to know? That’s it, pure and simple, and it’s a fair question. And no official, and certainly no governor for whom those officials work, should ever want that question asked.

Sunshine is what we call it when government operates in the public eye. Many times over many years, some officials have complained about the discomfort of conducting business openly and about what a burden it is. But other states, Florida being a noteworthy one, have set good examples for passing public records and public meetings laws that work.

When elected officials know that their actions will be fully scrutinized, they perform better. If a supervisor knows everything is going to be on the record, an employee who refused to play ball with people trying to influence government is certainly less likely to get fired.

If everything’s on the table, nothing goes under the table.

Public curiosity and outrage should be intensified if ever the people see a public official trying to close the blinds on public records laws. No, no, no. Let the sun shine in!

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