Every year, the General Assembly seems to sprout a bumper crop of bills that are downright loony. One of our current favorites is Sen. Dan Bishop’s proposal to make it a crime to yell at lawmakers and other public officials.
So, it only behooves us to note when the Honorables get it right.
One such case is a bill co-sponsored by two Republicans in the Senate, Bill Cook from Beaufort County and Norman Sanderson from Pamlico. They want to make it a misdemeanor to violate North Carolina’s law on open meetings and public records.
This is good news and it ought to pass.
The Tar Heel State has pretty good laws on open government. Boards at all levels are supposed to meet, debate and carry on business in public (except in certain cases, such as personnel matters or real estate transactions).
People — and this includes all ordinary citizens, and not just members of “The Media” — have the right to go into government offices and view, examine and make copies of public records. Again, there are exceptions; for more information, you can consult “The North Carolina Guide to Open Government,” available online.
The trouble is, the law has no teeth. Officials can ignore open meeting and public record laws, essentially with impunity. Often they use cheap tricks to evade the provisions, like calling “snap” meetings with minimal notice and at times when few ordinary citizens can attend. Some charge ridiculously high fees for copies. Small municipalities and obscure boards often are the worst offenders.
Newspapers and broadcast outlets sometimes have to go to court to get orders forcing rogue bureaucrats to do their duty. Last year, for example, the Charlotte Observer sued then-Gov. Pat McCrory, to get him to release email records dealing with HB-2. The StarNews has been to court many times seeking public records.
That’s an expensive process, though, and may be beyond the means of individuals who might be involved in a zoning dispute or some other problem. Onslow County residents who were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune come to mind.
(If you don’t think public records access is a big deal, watch the movie “Erin Brockovich.” It can be a matter of life and death).
The Cook-Sanderson bill would make such bureaucratic shenanigans a Class 3 misdemeanor, with fines of up to $200 — just sharp enough to sting. It won’t deter all egregious behavior, but a few fines should teach most petty officials to respect the public’s right to know.
— The Wilmington Star-News