As Senate minority leader in 2010, Phil Berger championed the public’s right to know when he famously advocated through an all day and all night final session of the General Assembly a bill to secure better accountability from government officials through public access to personnel records.
Now the Senate president pro tem, Berger and his Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca will be part of another historic effort this week – national “Sunshine Week” in the open government world – to preserve the public’s right to know.
On Tuesday, Today, Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, will join House sponsors of compromise legislation to ensure that notices of planned government actions reach the greatest number of citizens in newspapers and on newspaper websites while providing cities and counties a reduction in the cost of placing them. The alternative is to have notices appear only on government-operated websites.
This is the same concept the Florida Legislature embraced in 2012 with the backing of the Florida League of Cities, aiding especially citizens who do not have or cannot afford Internet access.
In North Carolina, similar efforts to advance the public’s right to know were made in the last two sessions, but other issues took priority. Now, against the backdrop of a national debate about public access to federal government records at the U.S. Department of State, Republican leaders at the General Assembly have stepped up.
New House Speaker Tim Moore and Reps. Marilyn Avila (R-Wake), Chris Malone (R-Wake), Ted Davis (R-New Hanover) and Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) have strongly supported the public’s right to know. But despite strong votes in the House the past two years in favor of preserving public notices in newspapers and on their websites, the legislation never made it out of the Senate.
This year, however, Apodaca sponsored the public-notices compromise legislation in the form of Senate Bill 129, and it has the support of other respected Senate leaders such as Ralph Hise (R-Madison), Norman Sanderson (R-Pamlico), Shirley Randleman (R-Surry) and Louis Pate (R-Wayne). Capitol observers are saying that Senate leader Berger, an Eden Republican, is also giving the green light to SB 129.
This legislation signals a shift at the highest levels of government
to embrace accountability and to promote the public’s confidence in government operations. The General Assembly can, with passage of SB129 (and counterpart House Bill 156), make a statement that government interests proposing actions that will potentially affect the public will have to provide the same meaningful and far-reaching notice required of private interests, such as estate executors notifying potential creditors or real estate developers announcing proposed, permanent street closings.
The legislation will also remove the temptation for local governments, some of which want to exclusively control publication of government notices, to retaliate against unfavorable press coverage by removing public notices from newspapers. One Republican lawmaker told a House committee in Raleigh that giving that power to local governments would “wreak havoc” with free press rights in his district.
Access to government records ought to be a near sacred right in this democracy. And the public’s full knowledge about government lies at the heart of it. Yet time and time again we see government interests all but ignoring their duty to be open with the public, whether it’s a state university concealing records about academic fraud, a school board refusing to tell the public why its superintendent was fired, a police department declining to reveal why a police officer was suspended or the U.S. Department of State refusing for years to respond to federal Freedom of Information Act requests by the Associated Press.
In far too many instances, the public and media are forced to take legal action against their own government to secure the access to records to which the public is entitled. And it just shouldn’t come to that.
John Bussian is a Raleigh-based lawyer who serves as legislative counsel to the N.C. Press Association.