Governor candidates pledge open government

Three years of scandals and the imprisonment of three former or current legislators have soiled North Carolina's capital. Now the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor are promising to hose it down.

Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory propose a large dose of transparency to clean up Raleigh, including making themselves, their e-mails and their schedules more readily available.

Reforming the capital – yes, “change” – has turned into as potent a campaign issue in the governor's race as in the presidential campaign. Embarrassments and scandals, ranging from mental health system failures to the lottery's creation, have both gubernatorial candidates pledging changes that will give the public a better view of how government operates.

McCrory, a Republican, routinely derides a “culture of corruption” and secrecy in Raleigh. Perdue, a Democrat, is bashing the sitting governor from her own party, Mike Easley. His public appearances are infrequent and details of his schedule scant.

“As governor, unlike Mike Easley, I'm going to be accessible,” Perdue said in a recent interview. “I'm going to be on site. I'm going to be out there with people, because that's my personality.”

Perdue spelled out eight “change orders” she plans to impose immediately after taking office, and at least six of them directly affect access to her or the availability of details about how state government runs.

Similarly, McCrory outlined plans to make campaign fundraising data available more quickly and conflicts of interest declared more publicly. On Tuesday, he proposed the creation of special state grand juries to investigate political corruption, emphasizing that the recent string of corrupt state officials were pursued by federal prosecutors.

“We must clean up our own state government,” McCrory said in a prepared statement, “and not continue to depend on federal courts to do our work.”

Both candidates have promised weekly news conferences, access to their e-mails, detailed copies of their schedules and a policy that all administration e-mails are public records and shouldn't be destroyed.

The candidates' shots at Easley partly grew out of controversies last spring over failures in the state's mental health system. Easley initially avoided taking questions about expensive and deadly shortcomings in the state's effort to reform mental health care.

Easley later said he threw away a letter from Carmen Hooker Odom, who was secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services when the reforms passed.

Then The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported that at least some administration officials had been instructed to destroy e-mails. The newspaper, along with The Charlotte Observer and eight other news organizations, sued Easley's administration over the e-mail destruction.

But the dispute over e-mails was only the latest problem in state government:

Former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black, last year, and former Republican House member Michael Decker, in 2006, both pleaded guilty to public corruption charges for taking payoffs.

Former lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings was convicted on fraud charges in 2006 related to his role in creating a state lottery.

State Rep. Thomas Wright, a New Hanover County Democrat, was convicted this year on fraud and obstruction of justice charges in connection with campaign finance violations.

These scandals, along with the mental health debacle and the resignation of state Board of Transportation members over conflicts of interest, have helped erode the public's trust in government, said Bob Phillips, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause North Carolina.

“It contributes to the cynicism the public has,” Phillips said. “It's important there be a change.”

McCrory and Perdue say they have been accessible in their current offices. McCrory points out that The Charlotte Observer has routinely culled the e-mails to and from his city account for several years.

Some of those messages, though, also are copied to a private e-mail account that is not publicly available. Amy Auth, McCrory's spokeswoman, said city staff will sometimes e-mail McCrory's personal account when he is at home.

Perdue said her office has a good record of complying with public records requests. As a senator, though, she was one of the co-chairs of the appropriations committee, a group that routinely changed or introduced new elements in the budget during closed door sessions. In her current campaign, Perdue has proposed an overhaul of the budget process to require lawmakers to vote up or down on major proposals with no opportunity to change them.

The importance of transparency has grown for two reasons, said Connie Book, director of the Sunshine Center at Elon University.

First, she said, news organizations are shrinking and less able to play watchdog over government operations.

Secondly, the economic crisis and related mismanagement have underscored the importance of the public knowing how government entities operate, said Book, associate dean at Elon's school of communication.

“Transparency in decision making,” Book said, “is more important in tough times where every dollar counts – showing how money is spent, how taxes are collected, that our government is working on behalf of the people.”