Transparency lags for NC lawmakers, advocates say

03/17/2014 7:40 PM

03/17/2014 9:22 PM

Despite widespread interest, efforts to make the North Carolina Legislature more transparent through better audio and video coverage have failed, panelists at an open government forum said on Monday.

Lawmakers conduct much of their work debating bills in public committee meetings, but only two of the many rooms where those sessions are held have microphones, said WRAL capitol bureau chief Laura Leslie. Those are needed to record, broadcast or stream audio.

Proceedings on the floor of the House and Senate are wired for sound, but efforts in recent years to capture video there or other areas have gone nowhere, Leslie and others said at the North Carolina Open Government Coalition’s annual Sunshine Day event at Elon University.

“When the Republicans came to power in ’11, (House Speaker Thom) Tillis wanted video,” Leslie said. That effort was set aside, she said, due to other state spending priorities.

Leslie said citizens who must travel hours to get to Raleigh have called her station and requested live coverage online. Often, the station is unable to comply because of limited resources, other priorities or the lack of microphones in committee rooms.

It’s not just residents who are affected by the challenges of legislative coverage. Leslie said officials from the Department of Transportation and other state departments have asked the news station to stream video from certain committee meetings.

Moderator Connie Ledoux Book of Elon University said the top priority for public officials should be to make their work transparent.

“It’s a mindset,” she said.

The focus of this year’s program was using technology to bring transparency to state and local governments.

Keynote speaker Waldo Jaquith, founder of the U.S. Open Data Institute, said government should proactively release public information – such as court decisions, campaign donations and lobbyist filings – without the need for records requests.

“We need to start regarding every (Freedom of Information Act) request as a failure of government,” Jaquith said.

Universities and nonprofits are stepping in to encourage governments to become easier to navigate and more transparent to improve civic engagement.

John Clark, the executive director of the Reese News Lab at UNC Chapel Hill, described a class initiative to make legislative proceedings more accessible to the public through the student project called Capitol Hound.

The subscription-based service, which launched Monday, will make legislative audio feeds searchable by keywords. Students believe it will prove a useful tool for lobbyists, lawyers and news organizations, among others.

Brent Laurenz, executive director for the N.C. Center for Voter Education, said the nonprofit makes audio from the general assembly available, but also faces the same challenges of limited technology infrastructure.

The nearly 700 hours of audio the group provided during the past session had about 2,500 listeners a month at the session’s height, he said.

“It’s not ‘Must See TV’ or the sexiest thing,” Laurenz said. “(But) ultimately it’s about helping citizens to hold their government accountable.

“People want and need that information. … It’s important that it exists.” Doug Miller contributed.

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