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Here’s your daily dose of sunshine today, or at least the open government type of rays celebrated every year as part of the national Sunshine Week.

Earlier this month,  Lee County commissioners abandoned their normal meeting location to hold what is supposed to be a town hall-type public meeting at Sanford’s private Carolina Trace Country Club, according to this account from the writers behind the Rant, a Sanford-based news blog. (Scroll down for the video, it’s worth it.)

After digging a bit, writer Billy Liggett, a former newspaper editor, found out that the March 7 meeting was not only being held in a place where the general public couldn’t go, it was limited to residents of the Carolina Trace gated community. An advertisement later obtained by Liggett about the meeting promoted the meeting as a meet-and-greet with local Republican elected official and candidates for upcoming races.

North Carolina’s open meeting law is pretty clear on what ought to happen when it comes to these situations, requiring that “each official meeting of a public body shall be open to the public, and any person is entitled to attend such a meeting.” Read More

Reporters around the state have encountered problems in getting public records requests filled quickly, despite state law requiring public agencies to release records “as promptly as possible.”

The New & Observer, in a story over the weekend, details how reporters have faced months-long waits for public records, including the eight months an Asheville-based reporter waited for records related to the state’s unexpected shutdown of an abortion clinic there last year. (Click here to read the Carolina Public Press investigative report that stemmed from those public records.)

The article was published as part of “Sunshine Week,” an annual focus on open government and public records laws across the country.

From the N&O:

The delays mean the public lacks timely insight into how public dollars are being spent and how public servants are fulfilling their duties.

Soon after taking office, Gov. Pat McCrory declared Medicaid “broken” and promised to reform the program. He hired an experienced Medicaid manager, Carol Steckel, as Medicaid director.

The governor made it clear that he wanted to move North Carolina’s Medicaid program to a managed care model, under which private insurance companies would manage parts or all of the program.

When Steckel abruptly resigned in September, The News & Observer requested access to Steckel’s work-related emails. WRAL separately requested all of Steckel’s emails that mentioned managed care.

Six months later, the department has yet to produce a single email.

A slowdown in the public accessing records can make it difficult for news media to pass information to the public, as this article from WRAL explains. It also prevents citizens from being able to scrutinize and evaluate government institutions funded with taxpayer dollars.

From WRAL:

What’s important to remember, [open government lawyer Mike] Tadych said, is that, in accessing public records, reporters are exercising a right available to the average citizen.

“With respect to access to public records, the media have no greater right of access than the general public,” Tadych said. “They may avail themselves of it more, but it’s not just something there for the journalists.”

On the local level, where Tadych said citizens most often deal with government officials, all kinds of public records can help residents find out more about what’s going on in their backyards. That might mean getting information about a change to local zoning ordinances or a proposal to change city rules.

Although he said there’s no legal obligation for local officials to answer your questions, it typically helps to let the public agency know what you’re looking for as narrowly and clearly as possible.

You can learn more about North Carolina’s public records laws and how to request records here.

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)