North Carolina law is clear on what government meetings and records must be open and available to the public, but there’s no penalty for officials who violate the law.
Sen. Bill Cook, a Beaufort County Republican, filed a bill Tuesday to change that. Senate Bill 77 would make it a Class 3 misdemeanor to deny someone access to public records or violate laws governing open meetings.
“Under the current statute, one can violate the law with impunity,” Cook said in an email. “Currently, officials will knowingly close the door on the public because they most likely will not be held accountable. Open government is vital to an informed public.”
News organizations and other groups have occasionally filed lawsuits when a government agency failed to release records in a timely fashion. Last year, for example, the Charlotte Observer sued then-Gov. Pat McCrory in an effort to force his administration to produce email records related to House Bill 2.
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Class 3 misdemeanors are the most minor category of crimes in North Carolina law, and people convicted of them often pay a fine of up to $200.
Cook said he thinks his bill would make violations of open records and meetings laws less common. Sen. Norman Sanderson, a Pamlico County Republican, is co-sponsoring the bill.
“The people of North Carolina want good government which includes transparency and fairness,” Cook said. “If government officials are concerned about open meeting penalties, they will go the extra mile to ensure transparency.”
State law for government boards – from school boards to city councils to obscure regulatory commissions – requires meetings to be open to the public unless the board is holding a closed session for one of several purposes allowed under law, such as getting legal advice or discussing a personnel matter.