Thursday, February 21, 2013 11:11 PM
Bill adds teeth to state laws on open meetings, records
By Corey Friedman | Times Online Editor
Officials who refuse to release public records or shut North Carolina residents out of open meetings could face criminal penalties under a bill filed Thursday.
Senate Bill 125 would make violations of the state public records and open meetings laws a Class 3 misdemeanor. State Sen. Buck Newton, a Wilson Republican, is co-sponsor of the bill introduced by Sens. Thom Goolsby and Tom Apodaca.
"Right now, there’s no teeth in that law,” said Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican. "When you have trouble with a governmental authority who won’t provide you records or won’t let you into a meeting, all you can do now is sue.”
While North Carolina newspapers are among the bill’s strongest backers, the N.C. Press Association says it’s designed to empower individual residents who are less likely than media outlets to sue violators.
"Newspapers, radio and TV can generally take the offender to court because we can afford it,” NCPA Executive Director Beth Grace said. "But the general public usually doesn’t have the money and doesn’t have the time. They shouldn’t be made to fight for access to records that are already theirs under the law.”
Residents who sue for public record and open meeting violations face long legal battles and no certainty that the judge will award them legal fees if they win.
"That’s not much of a remedy for a private citizen to hire a lawyer and sue because they were kept out of a school board meeting,” said Goolsby, a criminal defense attorney.
Goolsby said flagrant open meetings law violations committed by the alcoholic beverage control board in his home county of New Hanover showed him that penalties for flouting the law are necessary.
"It’s our money,” he said. "It’s our government. These people work for us, and we have a right to go to meetings that should be open. We have a right to records that should be provided to us. If people want to violate the law, they should have some kind of penalty for not complying.”
An offender with no prior criminal convictions would face up to 10 days of community punishment for a Class 3 misdemeanor, according to state structured sentencing guidelines.
Goolsby said the law is meant to encourage compliance by providing a penalty for those who hold illegal closed meetings or withhold public records.
"If somebody takes the tack of, ‘These guys just want to see that public officials get locked up,’ nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. "You don’t have to worry about being arrested for speeding if you’re not speeding.”
N.C. General Statute 132 establishes that any government record not specifically exempt is presumed open to public inspection.
"The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people,” the law states.
General Statute 143 requires that government bodies provide advance notice of all meetings and keep accurate minutes of those meetings. Boards can go into closed session for a handful of reasons, but all votes must be held in public and minutes of closed sessions must be recorded.
Not every violation of the public records and open meetings laws is meant to keep residents in the dark. Grace said SB 125 would prod government agencies to ensure that their employees know and understand the law.
"I think the first step to preventing criminal charges from being filed is to educate the folks in government,” she said. "Most of the time when people deny access to records, it’s because they don’t know what the law is.”
Goolsby and Apodaca introduced a similar bill in the General Assembly’s last session, but it died in committee. Goolsby said he’s confident that the current bill will reach a vote on the Senate floor.
"I give them great credit for bringing this to the table again,” Grace said. "This needs to be there. It’s not always the easiest thing to do to stand up and fight for the public’s right to know, but these two guys have come again for a second time to make it happen. We give them great credit for it, and they have our full backing.”
The N.C. Press Association is a Raleigh-based trade group representing more than 100 daily and weekly newspapers in North Carolina.
SB 125 will likely be referred to the Senate’s Judiciary I committee, Goolsby said. He and Newton are co-chairmen of that committee, but Goolsby said he’d be excused from voting on the bill because he is a primary sponsor.
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