Sunshine Week: Clouds, periods of sun, a few flurries

By on March 18, 2018

Citizens should not just expect but be readily certain without asking that their government is operating in a transparent manner. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case in North Carolina and has become even less so over the past few years.

Recent stories about the Town of Manteo’s unwillingness to video and broadcast the board meetings comes under the flurries issue.

Although Mayor Bobby Owens and Commissioner Eddie Mann both pushed the other board members to agree to televise the meetings, there was strong resistance.

The stated reasons for denying constituents the opportunity to view the meetings on television are troubling.

One commissioner said that meeting participants would be less likely to speak their minds if a camera was rolling. Another said it might force the board to discuss things outside of the public eye.

And it was noted that it might hurt the small-town atmosphere. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo that all elected bodies must comply with the Open Government Laws — no exemptions carved out for “small towns”.

There are clouds over some agencies’ lack of commitment to open government.

A continuing problem is getting state legislators to provide documents, emails to and from constituents, and other communication related to legislation. Requests for such documents are most often either ignored or denied based on a claimed “executive privilege”.

News flash: There is no such privilege carved out for any level of government all the way up to the governor’s office.

A suit has been filed by a citizen against a legislator who has ignored requests for documents from her office. It will be interesting to see what the elected official tries to use as a defense for essentially taking the stance that no one has a right to know who is requesting legislation, why, if is there any quid per quo, or if there is push back, where it is coming from.

If it is a continuing problem, why was a suit not filed before this, you may wonder.

Because of the way North Carolina’s Open Government Laws are written, the only recourse when transparency laws are broken is to take it to the courts to decide. Not many have the thousands of dollars often needed to pay attorneys to represent such cases.

The cases that I’ve played a role in over the years have come with legal representation price tags of $500 to $135,000. Going to court is not for the feint hearted!

One of the worst state agencies to deal with is the Wildlife Resources Commission. If someone is lucky enough to have questions for the law enforcement division, the response is quick, polite and without fanfare.

However, questions that have to be submitted to administration since there is no WRC public information officer often fall into a dark, deep hole. A request made more than a year ago still has not received any type of acknowledgement.

On March 1, I requested the meeting dates and minutes of the Outdoor Heritage Council, which was legislatively created in 2015. One set of minutes is posted online, but although the Council is charged with meeting four times a year, there is no information about meetings after the initial one.

Although open meeting minutes can’t legally be redacted and are public record, the minutes were referred to the Attorney General’s Office for review before releasing. There is no rhyme nor reason for that. And how can there be any reason that meeting dates could be withheld?

That office is operating about 50 attorneys short since the General Assembly drastically cut the budget, so it is always iffy when such legal reviews can occur. I received the response two weeks later, which is much better than other dealings with them. Attaching minutes and meeting dates shouldn’t take two weeks and the assistance of an attorney.

But there is sunshine to be found!

The towns and county government are generally very responsive to requests and the turnaround time is usually a reasonable length.

And the Division of Marine Fisheries — not to be confused with the Marine Fisheries Commission — also goes above and beyond in responding to records and providing answers.

Now, it is time to spread that sunshine to state agencies. The General Assembly has enacted laws that shield some from scrutiny and that doesn’t serve anyone well.

Step up to the plate and do your part to bring sunshine to government. As you talk to elected officials and those running for office, tell them you want more transparency and fewer secrets in governments. Then ask them what they intend to do about that.

And, Manteo, get out of the dark ages, throw open the doors and let some sunshine into your meetings!

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