It's time to put teeth in open records law

North Carolina has a first-rate open government policy. State law requires that meetings of government decision-making bodies be open to the public, with certain exceptions. And the law requires that most government records such as minutes of city council meetings be available to anyone who asks. In a democracy, these sunshine laws are critically important to the public's understanding of how its government works – and to public confidence in government agencies.

But sometimes the law doesn't work. Consider the case of a Chatham County citizen who wanted to find out why the county board of elections was considering buying new voting machines. The citizen asked for copies of the board's meeting minutes and was told there were no minutes – even though the law requires minutes to be kept.

Trouble is, the board lied. There were minutes, as the citizen discovered while spending tens of thousands of dollars in a lawsuit before a judge ruled that the board had violated both the open meetings law and the open records law. The citizen filed that lawsuit because it was the only way to find out the truth – and because the law allows judges to award attorney's fees to plaintiffs when they prevail in an open government lawsuit.

The judge, however, awarded the plaintiff only 10 percent of the lawsuit's $35,000 cost. The law contains loopholes that undermine an otherwise good law. It allows judges to award only a portion of the fees if they conclude the government agencies acted “with justification” or if awarding the full cost would be “unjust.”

Think about that. This was a case where the agency lied, covered up its actions and deliberately avoided producing what is clearly public information. That's neither justified nor just. It's an outrage.

That's why state Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, and Sens. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson and Eddie Goodall, R-Union, are sponsoring a bipartisan bill to eliminate the exceptions allowing judges to reduce or deny attorneys' fees.

Their bill also creates in the N.C. Justice Department an Open Government Unit to educate public officials on their responsibilities under the open government statutes. It would also mediate public records and open meeting disputes, a provision that has the promise of reducing the need for any lawsuits to force public agencies to comply.

Sen. Hoyle and his cosponsors deserve credit for standing up for the public's right to know what its government is doing. His bill – approved by two Senate committees and likely to come up for a Senate vote soon – reaffirms the principle that in North Carolina, government is the servant of the people, and not the other way around.