Despite the damp and dreary weather to start off the week, March 16 through March 22 is Sunshine Week. But it has nothing to do with the weather. Instead, the foundation of the week lies in a solid principle: Open government is good government.
Sometimes, local governments don’t adhere to that idea.
Believe it or not, we are still waiting for the city of Hamlet to release City Manager Marchell David’s employment contract.
It might not be new, or news, anymore, since David signed the contract last October, less than a month before the November election. The contract offer by City Council and acceptance by David made it newsworthy at the time, in that it was precedent-setting for the city of Hamlet. In addition, some questioned the timing of the contract offer with it being so close to the general election.
What was a two-day story turned into a five-day story in The Daily Journal, however, when David and other city officials refused to release a copy of the agreement that is, by law, a public document. The terms of the contract became available to The Daily Journal only after the newspaper submitted a request for public information. Even so, David has remained insistent that the contract itself is confidential — despite that UNC School of Law officials clearly stating otherwise.
Though Hamlet isn’t the only local government entity to undergo scrutiny for its dealings, the city has had the most noteworthy and recent actions to question. The contract offer was only the latest. A second issue arose when former Mayor Jeff Smart and the City Council, two members of which replaced former members in the November election for a new majority on multiple issues, agreed to purchase the former A&P building across from City Hall for $50,000.
The purchase was approved by council members in between the August and September scheduled public meetings. There is no known record of the vote or public discussion.
Kudos to new council members Jesse McQueen and Eddie Martin, along with holdover Johnathan Buie, in voting on March 11 to ask newly appointed town attorney T.C. Morphis Jr. to look into the propriety of the purchase of the building, which is expected to become the new police headquarters.
To date, the city has not revealed how individual council members voted on the issue, by what method or when.
This is the exact opposite of open government, and residents of Hamlet and Richmond County deserve better. While Sunshine Week is only seven days long, it’s a time to alert the general public about the type of public information to which they can expect access from their local governments.
Two primary websites that reporters use is www.ncopengov.org, run by the Sunshine Center of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, and http://sunshineweek.rcfp.org. Of course, use of these websites isn’t limited to journalists. We encourage members of the public to review them and become familiar with what they can expect from local, county and state governments. Start asking questions; you deserve the answers.