House Speaker Joe Hackney has some explaining to do. In the closing days of the 2008 General Assembly, he said there wasn't enough time left to consider a bill to put some teeth in North Carolina's open government laws.
Now, it's true the legislature was winding down. But Speaker Hackney did not halt work on dozens of other bills in the closing days.
The bill was not complicated. It consisted of a page and a half – most of it taken up by a proposal to codify a new office already created by N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper to help educate public officials under the open government laws and help mediate disputes between public officials and citizens. Who could oppose an office so obviously in the public interest?
Second, the bill would finally have given the state's admirable open records and open meetings laws real consequences for public officials who stubbornly refuse to comply with them. Most states already do this in one of two ways. They provide for automatic recovery of legal fees when a citizen has to sue a public official to enforce the law, or they provide criminal penalties for those who violate public records laws.
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North Carolina doesn't do either one. It forces citizens potentially to bear the full costs of lawyers if they sue and win in an effort to produce a public record. Judges can award the full amount of legal fees, but in significant cases they often award only a fraction. That's not right, but that's what happened in Speaker Hackney's district. A judge ruled the local elections board violated both the open records and open meetings laws – but awarded only 10 percent of a citizen's $35,000 in legal costs. That's outrageous.
Two years ago, Attorney General Cooper made the point that N.C. law has no teeth in it to enforce open records. He told the Open Government Coalition in Charlotte, “I've always felt that it's not really much good to have a law in place unless you have consequences.” He's right.
The Senate approved the open government bill not long before the legislature was to adjourn. That no doubt was a big factor in Speaker Hackney's decision not to act on it. But on an issue so vital to an open democracy, it's troubling to see the speaker plead insufficient time on a topic so obviously in the public interest. We hope he will reconsider the topic and find a way to give this otherwise helpful law some teeth. A law without real consequences is just another well-intentioned guideline. Citizens shouldn't have to pay to force their government to obey it.