Let the sun shine

Published 2:03 pm Sunday, March 11, 2007

By Staff
How do government officials expect the public to have faith that they are conducting the public’s business properly when they don’t allow access to public records or they make that access difficult?
The answer is they can’t.
During one week in February, the North Carolina Press Association, League of Women Voters and the North Carolina Open Government Coalition sent representatives to local governments across the state to access public records. Those records included minutes of closed meetings conducted during a 90-day period, copies of billing statements received from outside legal counsel in the past six months and copies of e-mail sent by city council or town council members and school board members in a 30-day period.
Those representatives found responses to their requests for public records ranged from cooperative and timely to suspicion and no response.
The exercise was a prelude to the observance of Sunshine Week, which begins today and runs through March 17.
It’s disturbing to learn that some people responsible for making public records accessible to the public don’t know or are unclear when it comes to the law pertaining to those records. It’s even more disturbing to learn that some of these custodians of public records wouldn’t provide access, for whatever reason, to those records.
When it comes to public records, cooperation must be the word that applies, not confusion.
When someone requests access to public records, North Carolina law does not require the person seeking those public records to identify himself or herself. That person does not have to explain why he or she wants to view the public records.
That’s a sad commentary. Public records belong to the public, not the public body that holds them as custodian of those records.
The exercise showed that obtaining e-mails from school board members or city (or town) council members was the most challenging part of the audit. Well, that means it is time for these people to be educated.
Amanda Martin, the North Carolina Press Association’s general counsel, agrees.
If government officials, from the governor to a school board member, want the public to have faith in them, they must earn that faith. Making sure public records are accessible to the public is a good place to start building that foundation of faith,
The public should be allowed to bask in the sunshine of open government. It’s the responsibility of government officials to make sure the dark clouds of secrecy and noncompliance with public-records laws don’t interfere with that sunshine.