Garner: Opinion

Column: Let’s spread a little sunshine

Johnny Whitfield, columnist The Eastern Wake News and The Clayton News Star.
Johnny Whitfield, columnist The Eastern Wake News and The Clayton News Star.

March 16 marks the beginning of Sunshine Week in North Carolina.

No, we’re not talking about the return of blue skies and warmer temperatures. We’re talking about a set of laws that obligate your government to make the vast majority of their business public.

Most of us are proud of the work we do. We work hard to produce the best product or service we can. We grit our teeth and smile when we deal with a difficult customer. We make mistakes and we try to correct them.

Most of our state’s elected leaders in Raleigh and in towns and counties all over North Carolina, enter into public life because they have a sense of how they can help do a better job of leading whatever group they are seeking to join. They don’t run for office in an effort to obfuscate and hide information from those they serve.

Yet, despite that noble purpose and despite our state’s fairly expansive open government laws, it can be a difficult thing to get public information – information that belongs to the public – from the custodians who hold those records or conduct that bit of public business.

Why that is, I’m not sure. Politicians and bureacrats are generally thick-skinned people. They’ve been faced with making difficult decisions before and they’ve learned to live with the consequences of their decisions.

But time after time we read of a public record request spurned, or unfathomable delays in filling requests.

Here in North Carolina, many observers believe the University of North Carolina could long ago have headed off a still-mushrooming athletics scandal if they had simply responded in a timely fashion to requests for information about the matter. Instead, they’ve chosen to release bits and pieces of information over a long period of time.

In the meanwhile, more questions arise every day about the forthrightness of our government.

This isn’t just a problem with state government. Officials in local towns are often guilty of keeping information from public view.

The proliferation of new technology has made it much easier for public officials to have conversations – sometimes even make decisions – out of the public eye.

That’s not a good way to make a public decision. Elected leaders and the staffers who work for them would better serve people if those deliberations were held in the open, where the sunshine can illuminate the work of government. Assuming elected leaders are making decisions with an eye toward what they believe is in the best interest of as many people as possible, then there should be no cause for concern when it comes to adhering to the state’s open government laws.

Over time, the benefit of open government is that better decisions are made because those with the power to vote on a town board or a state commission understand that their decisions will be made in front of the people who put them into office – the same people, by the way, who can get them out of office.

So, this week, consider how much your local government affects your day-to-day life. Let your elected leaders know you would appreciate it if they work hard to keep that information available to their constituents. And, perhaps Sunshine Week will serve a purpose far greater than a simple week-long observation.