N.C. Open Government Coalition is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the public’s understanding of transparency laws and access to government information in North Carolina.
What is Sunshine Week and why is it important?
Sunshine Week is an annual national celebration of government transparency as a public good. It’s also a call to action. Every year, transparency advocates from around the country conduct programming to remind the public how important government transparency and accountability are to our lives. It’s an annual reminder that government information belongs to the public and each of us is entitled to attend meetings about public business and get records of government work at minimal cost and on demand. During Sunshine Week, we also celebrate government officials who take these responsibilities seriously and do tremendous work informing the public of what’s going on in government.
How does your organization help in the fight for government transparency?
We think of our fight for transparency primarily through the lens of education. If North Carolinians are unaware of their rights and the legal rules related to transparency then it will be much harder for them to get information when they need it. So we hold events during Sunshine Week and run a hotline to field calls from citizens and journalists who need help understanding the law.
We also contact public officials when we see transparency problems that need their attention. For example, as public bodies have navigated the “new normal” during COVID-19 and started holding more meetings online, we’ve tried to flag best practices for them so that the public can be more engaged. We try to stick up for all North Carolinians to make sure they’re treated fairly when they need information from public servants.
In what ways could the state’s public records law be improved?
There are two big categories of exemptions that we think the legislature should revisit. The first is the personnel records exemption. Right now, a citizen can only get a limited amount of information about a public servant, including their salary, date of hire, contract terms, and other similar information. But when a public servant is disciplined, most of that information remains confidential unless and until the public servant is fired. And even then, most of the underlying records remain secret. This means that the public is left in the dark in some cases of major malfeasance. The law could be modified to strike a better balance.
Another major area is the meeting minutes requirements for public meetings. The law is not very clear on the standard for meeting minutes and a lot of public servants and citizens are left wondering what public bodies have to put in their minutes. For closed sessions, these minutes are kept secret and don’t become public for quite a while. The law could be improved if there were clearer standards for what minutes should include and when they must be published after a closed session takes place. There are a lot of other examples, but these are two that really frustrate citizens who are trying to engage with their elected and appointed officials.
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