During Sunshine Week, newspaper and media outlets across the nation celebrate open records and meetings.
But we also highlight the failures of government that too often attempts to hide basic information from the citizenry.
The Times-News participated in a project over the last two months in which we tested local agencies and their responses to an open records request of minutes from closed meetings during 2017. The responses, unfortunately, were not surprising:
Alamance-Burlington School System, which is in the midst of a secretive process to hire a new superintendent, spent two months holding on to the records to heavily redact them. North Carolina law says that records can be redacted only so that a reasonable person can still tell what’s going on. See the pages for yourself on www.thetimesnews.com.
Alamance County, in its typically hamfisted manner, refused to turn over any documents from closed meetings, redacted or otherwise. The county attorney, Clyde Albright, said in an email that a judge had already determined the documents are closed. Of course, that’s not true. A judge noted that some of material related to lawsuits could be closed — and mind you those lawsuits arose from the county’s own misbehavior. Courts say you must turn over records even if some information must be redacted.
UNC-Greensboro, which we were assigned by our partners in the test, failed to respond to our initial requests. We suppose the Times-News is a mere gnat in the hinterlands to their grand institution. We checked with the president’s office and immediately received emails from the public record holder, but shortly thereafter, they stopped responding, period.
On the positive side, the city of Burlington responded immediately and by noting they didn’t have closed meetings. Burlington should be applauded.
The biggest culprit is North Carolina’s laws for open records and meetings. There are more allowances for closure than in most states, and that will continue to grow worse.
Additionally, there are too many in the legislature who would like to pull public meetings notices from newspapers. Thankfully, there are folks like our local Rep. Steve Ross who understand government transparency.
It’s not about media, though. In most states, about two-thirds of records requests come from the people — the rest from media.
James Madison wrote “consent of the governed” requires that the people be able to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”