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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.)

This. “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina SunshineWeekgovernment or its subdivisions are the property of the people.”

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.

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If you just happen to be a bit of a state policy wonk and lover of Apple products (guilty as charged, I’m afraid), then check out the new “Open States” application put out today by the Sunlight Foundation.

Built for iPhone and iPad users, the free app (click here to get it from the iTunes Store) aggregates data from several civic-minded websites (FollowtheMoney.org, VoteSmart) to give  a pretty impressive array of information about various lawmakers, and the bills they introduce.

It also uses GPS to help you figure out who a legislator is in the spot where you’re sitting, as well as links directly to legislator’s campaign contributions, the bills they’ve sponsored and maps of their districts.

And there’s photos of the lawmakers as well, which will at least help me figure out who’s who down at the N.C. General Assembly.

One initial disappointment I had is an apparent lag time in campaign contributions — the most up-to-date information was from the 2010 campaign (which includes money contributed in 2009) and nothing was up yet for 2011. I’d also like to see a bit more detail on how they got the data, which I found to be lacking.

Personally, I’ll plan on checking the App’s campaign contribution figures  (which comes from Follow the Money’s National Institute on Money in State Politics project) against the primary source data housed by the N.C. State Board of Elections, just to make sure the analysis is accurate. You can never be too sure, in my eyes, and best to always go to the source.

Despite that, the App seems like a useful way to get quick intel on lawmakers, and the type of information that most citizens find difficult to find.

Now, if only there was a way the N.C. General Assembly would see about letting the sun shine in a bit more, by posting agendas of committee hearings well ahead of time, archiving audio and video of their floor sessions and committee hearings and offering the public access to Wi-fi inside the N.C. Legislative Building.

That may be a tall order, but a reporter can dream, can’t she?

I’d be interested to hear what others think about the Sunlight Foundation App. Does it do anything more than what’s already out there? Find anything wrong with it?

 

(Note: an earlier version of this post misstated the name of the Sunlight Foundation)