From The Charlotte Observer, Dec. 23
Both Gov. Mike Easley and Attorney General Roy Cooper can give a heck of a speech about open records, open meetings and transparency in government. It all sounds quite promising.
But when it comes time to producing information that belongs to the taxpayers who provide the bulk of the state’s $20 billion-plus annual budget, the promise of transparency becomes murky, bordering on opaque. What the public is likely to get in some cases is a form whose most important information has been blacked out.
We’re not talking about all records, or even most of them. But in too many cases that bear directly on how well state government is doing its job — or how poorly — the Easley administration isn’t providing information that the N.C. General Assembly intended to be made publicly available.
The News & Observer reported last week that officials at the Department of Health and Human Services have begun blacking out information that once was routinely released, including information from police departments at the agency’s mental hospitals. Federal rules require that the names of patients, addresses and Social Security numbers be blocked from distribution.
But when news reporters have sought other information on the deaths of patients who died in mental hospitals, or about a reported rape at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, most information was blacked out before the reports were released, the paper reported.
State Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, sponsored a bill requiring all hospital deaths to be reviewed by the state’s Chief Medical Examiner. Easley signed it into law in late July. Nesbitt said the intent of the law was for the medical examiner to make the reports available.
Something’s not right. In their attention to following the letter of the law, state agencies in some cases have adopted overly restrictive policies that frustrate the orderly dissemination of public information to the public.
The legislature clearly intended these records to be public, but if the medical examiner and the department aren’t cooperating in a way to make that happen, they are not obeying the law.
Fortunately, Govornor-elect Bev Perdue says she’ll make sure such information is made public. “I will err on the side of public information,” she told the newspaper. “I really think this stuff is wrong, and it’s inexcusable that it’s going on in North Carolina.”