Our Opinion: Lift secrecy’s shadows and let the sun shine on state government

A Wilson Times Co. editorial
Posted 3/14/19

As Tar Heels bask under bright skies this week, North Carolina could use more sunshine in the dark corridors of state and local government.

“Sunshine” is shorthand for good-government …

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Our Opinion: Lift secrecy’s shadows and let the sun shine on state government

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As Tar Heels bask under bright skies this week, North Carolina could use more sunshine in the dark corridors of state and local government.

“Sunshine” is shorthand for good-government guarantees that protect the public’s right to know, such as public records and open meetings laws. It’s an allusion to conducting business in the light of day rather than in the shadows. While today marks the close of Sunshine Week, a nationwide open government campaign organized by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, transparency and accountability never go out of season.

When it comes to keeping the public in the know, our state has its work cut out for it. North Carolina lawmakers should implement the following policy changes.

End body camera secrecy

Law enforcement agencies invested heavily in officer body-worn camera systems following the August 2014 shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old theft suspect Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Amid allegations of excessive use of force against African-Americans, police throughout the country sought a silent witness to record officers’ interactions — both to protect good cops from unfounded accusations and to expose poor policing.

Many North Carolina departments received U.S. Department of Justice grants to buy body cameras. Then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the funding was made available “in order to increase transparency” and to allow civilians to monitor the work of their public law enforcement agencies. Initially, the cameras did just that. Then the General Assembly chose to make the video a state secret.

A 2016 law exempts body camera and dashboard camera video from the N.C. Public Records Act and requires people to petition a judge to release police footage. The expense of hiring an attorney places the video out of reach for many residents and breaks the promise of accountability under which body cameras were implemented.

Legislators should repeal the secrecy law and instead make police video routinely available to the public, with a provision that police can obtain court orders to delay the release of footage in cases when airing the video could compromise an ongoing investigation. That would strike an appropriate balance between legitimate law enforcement interests and the public’s right to know.

Outlaw staff-time surcharges

Some government agencies punish people who request public records by tacking exorbitant surcharges onto nominal copying fees. The charges are equivalent to the cost of salary and benefits for the staffers who fulfill records requests, and they can quickly accrue in hundred- and thousand-dollar increments, making it prohibitively expensive for state residents to obtain information they already own.

Officials say a provision in the Public Records Act authorizing a “special service charge” for “extensive use of information technology resources” makes the price-gouging OK. The law doesn’t define what constitutes “extensive,” leaving room for bad-faith interpretations. The town of Middlesex imposes a surcharge for documents that take more than 30 minutes to compile.

Despite warnings that this flunks the legal smell test from North Carolina Press Association lawyers and former Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is now the state’s governor, Middlesex persists with the punitive fees to this day.

Short of a lawsuit — which would cost town taxpayers for Middlesex to defend — the only way to end this outrage is for legislators to rein in rogue government agencies by clarifying the special service charge provision.

Show legislative leadership

In honor of Sunshine Week, freshman state Rep. Ray Russell, D-Watauga, introduced a transparency bill that would end midnight legislative sessions, require all House and Senate floor proceedings to be live-streamed, make influential lawmakers sign their changes to the state budget and prevent bills that have already passed one chamber from being hijacked, stripped and repopulated with unrelated amendments.

The North Carolina Sunshine Act elicited a stormy reception. House heavyweights decided to route it through a dozen committees, all but assuring it will never reach a floor vote. WRAL-TV reports that House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, quipped that “we felt Rep. Russell’s bill needs ample time in the sunshine.”

Even when lawmakers are amenable to imposing transparency requirements on the agencies they oversee, there’s little legislative appetite to subject the General Assembly to similar standards. That’s a shame and a profound mistake. State legislators should be willing to lead by example and let some sunlight into their own chambers.