Saturday, March 16, 2013 12:10 AM
Laws would open more records, meetings
Sen. Goolsby files two open government bills during Sunshine Week
By Corey Friedman | Times Online Editor
State lawmakers filed two bills to give North Carolina residents more access to public records and meetings in the midst of a weeklong open government campaign.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican, introduced the Sunshine Amendment and Government Transparency Act on Thursday to coincide with Sunshine Week, a national initiative to preserve and strengthen freedom of information laws. Sen. Wesley Meredith, a Fayetteville Republican, co-sponsored both bills.
"I just feel like people are reaching a fever pitch to want to be involved in their government, and they’re tired of being stonewalled and locked out,” Goolsby said. ”We want to focus on accountability — letting the people know what’s being done with their money, in their buildings, on their time and in their name.”
Senate Bill 331 would place a constitutional amendment for open meetings and public records on the 2014 general election ballot. The Sunshine Amendment would make documents and meetings presumptively public unless there’s a specific exemption in state law.
"Every person has the right to inspect or copy any public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body, officer or employee of the state, or persons acting on their behalf, except with respect to records exempted pursuant to this section,” the amendment reads.
A two-thirds majority of both the state Senate and House must pass the Sunshine Amendment in order for it to appear on the November 2014 ballot. A simple majority of North Carolina voters would add the amendment to the state constitution.
Senate Bill 332, the Government Transparency Act, would make government workers’ performance reviews public and make it easier to sue officials who withhold public information. State Rep. Jeff Collins, a Rocky Mount Republican, plans to file a companion bill in the North Carolina House.
The North Carolina Press Association, a trade group representing more than 100 daily and weekly newspapers, hailed the bills as a leap forward in public accountability.
"The Constitution is there to protect our basic rights, and I can’t think of a better addition than the right to know,” NCPA Executive Director Beth Grace said. "I think it most decidedly deserves to be a part of our Constitution.”
The Sunshine Amendment also would require a two-thirds supermajority of both houses to add new exemptions to disclosure laws for government records and meetings.
"We will make it very difficult to take things out of the public purview,” Goolsby said. "I just think it’s necessary. We don’t have national security interests in the state. We don’t have spy agencies and all this other stuff.”
Both open government bills are retreads of legislation introduced in 2011 that failed to reach a floor vote after contentious committee hearings. Goolsby said the first Sunshine Amendment died in committee, and the 2011 version of the Government Transparency Act met the same fate.
A second-term senator and co-chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary I committee, Goolsby said the seniority he’s gained in Raleigh and Republican control of both the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion should improve the bills’ chances the second time around.
"I’ve worked to explain the bill and the concerns I have to fellow members,” Goolsby said.
The Government Transparency Act faces opposition from state workers’ groups and the N.C. League of Municipalities, who argue that performance reviews should be confidential because the statements supervisors make in the evaluations aren’t necessarily always true.
"It’s a subjective determination that apparently doesn’t rise to the level of demotion or dismissal,” said Ardis Watkins, legislative affairs director for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, who noted that the reasons for firings and demotions are already public record. "It’s one person’s opinion of your performance.”
Grace said open government supporters need to explain how the bills benefit all North Carolina residents, not just journalists. Residents who support increased access to public records should lobby state lawmakers to vote for the bills.
"I think the only way to really support a bill like this is to talk about it a lot and to tell real people on the streets why it’s important to them,” Grace said.
Observed from March 10-16, Sunshine Week is a nationwide dialogue on government disclosure laws organized by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Sunshine is symbolic of public business being conducted in the daylight where it can be seen, and its use dates to 1913, when Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
"What better way to celebrate Sunshine Week than to stand in support of two extraordinary bills aimed at preserving and strengthening North Carolina’s open government laws and protecting every North Carolinian from losing their right to know what the government is doing in their name?” Grace said in a Thursday statement to publishers and editors. "NCPA supports these bills and applauds Sens. Goolsby and Meredith for fighting to keep government open and accountable to all.”
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