Thank you, Bill James.
Yes, you read that correctly.
This week is Sunshine Week, when journalists, educators and others celebrate the value of freedom of information. Each year on these pages, we remind you about the importance of knowing how our government conducts its business. We also remind you how government sometimes resists giving you such access. Thats still true, perhaps more than ever, but at least one public official on one public body seems to understand better than most who his boss is.
Deep breath now...
Bill James, you rock.
Regular readers know weve often been critical of James, who represents District 6 on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. His inflammatory comments about gays and blacks have embarrassed the board and county, including many of his fellow Republicans.
But James has consistently fought to make the commission transparent to the public, and hes a prolific supplier of emails about county business and issues. Those updates which dont go just to Observer reporters often include email exchanges between commissioners, as well as discussions with county and city officials. Its a valuable, unvarnished look at what our local government is doing.
Sure, wed guess that James is more inclined to send out emails that further his agendas, and were pretty certain he finds particular glee in revealing the emailed absurdity of bickering commissioners. But he also makes himself available to journalists, including those whove written harshly of him, and he convinced the commission to record closed sessions for later release, something other bodies in Charlotte dont fully do.
Public officials often forget that although they run the government, they dont own it. The public, which pays their salaries through taxes and fees, is entitled to attend open meetings and examine public records. Sunshine laws require that access in all but a few instances.
That right belongs to all citizens, although by the nature of our jobs, journalists have the opportunity to use it most. We do so for things small and big, such as telling you how many millions Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools plans to spend on new iPads, or how the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority engaged in lavish gift-giving to people who werent clients.
Often, government officials turn over such records willingly and quickly. But some try to stall or legislate their way around sunshine laws. A bill in the S.C. legislature this year did the latter by proposing that police, sheriffs and prosecutors keep secret any information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action or criminal prosecution.
Weve seen a similar stinginess with information in Charlotte, most recently with the $50 million the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is spending in preparation for the Democratic National Convention. That info should mostly be public record, as it is with the Republican National Convention in Tampa, but CMPD and the city are trying to get around their obligation by turning over severely redacted copies of documents.
That kind of dodging weakens North Carolinas public records statutes, which are seen by many as a national model. Those statutes are not just about public records. Theyre about public access.
Or, as one public official puts it: The more open and accessible government is, the better understanding the public has.
So says Bill James. On that, we definitely agree.