The innards of state government, courtesy of public record and sunshine laws
Public records in the North Carolina offer a chance to peer into the depths of state government, and see what is and what isn’t working.
It’s what I use daily in the work I do here as an investigative reporter at N.C. Policy Watch. Access to public records have proven instrumental in reporting pieces I’ve done about the (now former) state legislator who benefitted substantially from a federally- funded non-profit he ran, a Winston-Salem public charter school that recruited basketball players from around the world and a trip to Florida that an educational reform lobbying group paid for a group of lawmakers to go on last year.
This week being Sunshine Week, the annual check-in to see how open and transparent governments are, I thought it a good a time as any to wax poetic about the virtues of transparency.
My favorite line in the N.C. public records law? (And, yes, I’ve read the law enough times to have a favorite.)
That means that records, reports, emails and whatever else is forged in the name of public business belong not to the state agency heads, politicians or bureaucrats that create them, but to John Q. Public. As in, you and me.
In North Carolina, several bills in the legislature are looking to change the law this year– either by strengthening the penalties against public officials that withholding information or by making large classes of information, like concealed carry gun permits, confidential.
One bill introduced Thursday that seeks to make access to public records a constitutional right in the state, to be voted on by citizens.
The Sunshine Amendment, introduced by Republican Sens. Thom Goolsby and Wesley Meredith, would ask voters in the November 2014 election if state and local records should be open to the public.
The N.C. State Public Records Law already makes most government records available to public inspection, except for a list of exemptions that have been carved out by the state legislature, including many records pertaining to just how the sausage gets made at the legislature. ( John Frank at the News & Observer put together this list of things the N.C. General Assembly could do to make it more accountable to the public that elects its members.)
The amendment, if it were to be enacted, appears to keep those laws on the books until changed or repealed by the legislature. Any future moves to make information confidential would need two-thirds of support in the N.C. General Assembly.
In addition to Goolsby’s amendment proposal, here are other bills pending this session affecting public records:
- Another bill introduced by Goolsby, Senate Bill 332, would make work performance records and reasons for promotions or dismissal of public employees public.
- Senate Bill 125, also Goolsby’s, would make withholding public records a misdemeanor
- Concealed carry gun permits, currently public records accessible at county sheriff’s office, would become confidential under Senate Bill 28, sponsored by state Sen. Stan Bingham.
- House Bill 17 also seeks to make concealed handgun permits confidential, and to allow patrons to carry their guns into restaurants.
- Propriety or computer code would also become confidential under House Bill 125
- State Rep. George Cleveland, in House Bill 281, also wants to make the names of people who get out of jury duty public.
The N.C. Attorney General’s Office and N.C. Press Association put together a guide here for anyone looking to do some document digging or sleuthing on their own.
A final bit of what I hope is useful information for seekers of public information. The Sunshine Center of the N.C. Open Government Coalition released an app this week for smart phones to help both requestors and public agencies better navigate the public records law.
The app can be downloaded through the ITunes App store or through the Android marketplace – a search for N.C. Sunshine in either location should turn it up.
Enjoy the public records hunting, and please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org what you dig up.