OUR VIEW McLaurin stood up for right to know

First Posted: 6/27/2014

When politicians made a mess of the state’s agricultural policy, it took a pair of professionals with business interests on the farm to clean it up.

State Sen. Brent Jackson, a Duplin County farmer, and Richmond County’s own Sen. Gene McLaurin, whose oil company serves the farm industry, worked to successfully prevent lawmakers from hiding agricultural polluters behind a brick wall of state secrecy. North Carolina owes both men a debt of gratitude.

A last-minute substitute to the N.C. Farm Act of 2014 sought to make investigations into environmental complaints confidential by carving out an exception to the state’s public records law. It would have made farm regulators’ work more private than that of police detectives piecing together a homicide case.

Jackson sponsored an amendment on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon to make regulators’ records public when the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources determines that a violation has occurred. McLaurin lobbied lawmakers to support the change, and the teamwork paid off in a big way.

The Jackson amendment passed unanimously, with all senators in attendance agreeing that the public deserves to know when farms foul the state’s land, water or air. The result is a better farm bill that sailed through its second reading and will now advance to the House.

In a polarized and politicized General Assembly, lawmakers put divisions aside and worked together for our state’s collective good. Jackson, an Autryville Republican, and McLaurin, a Rockingham Democrat, each worked within his party to spread the message that open government is good government.

Our words in a Thursday editorial about the farm bill’s privacy provision resonated with McLaurin — so much so that he shared The Daily Journal editorial with lawmakers on the Senate floor.

“Senator Jackson and I did meet and discuss the concerns about openness and transparency,” McLaurin said. “I give him credit, he was really proactive about this. I’m a Democrat, he’s a Republican, but we both worked really well together.”

Richmond County’s senator also spoke about the secret investigations in a meeting of the General Assembly’s Agricultural and Rural Caucus. Lawmakers from the state’s rural districts reached a consensus that keeping people in the dark is bad public policy.

While a modest McLaurin credits Jackson with saving the day, our senator is to be commended for his supporting role. He stood up for the public’s right to know and helped turn the tide against a deeply flawed proposal.

The former farm bill would have kept environmental violations hidden. It sought to silence whistleblowers and scold stakeholders, telling us it’s none of our business whether or why there’s waste in our backyard. That’s just plain wrong.

The reports DENR generates when investigating complaints and the sanctions it issues when misconduct is found are matters of public concern. State regulators work for us, the taxpayers, not for the industries they’re supposed to police.

Our amended farm bill is vastly improved, but it isn’t perfect. The legislation still seeks to keep complaints under wraps while they’re being investigated, though courts can order their release even when no violation is found. The public deserves to know when allegations are so serious that the state dispatches regulators to investigate on our dime.

We’re confident, however, that whistleblowers can short-circuit this shortcoming on their own. After all, nothing prevents environmental groups and private citizens who file complaints with DENR from sharing that information with the public and press.

The good news is that North Carolina residents won’t be kept in the dark when DENR finds evidence of environmental violations. Our senator fought for transparency and won.

Our state will be a better place — and maybe even a cleaner one — for his efforts.