Don’t do public’s work in the dark

The Observer editorial board

Gary Pruitt
Gary Pruitt TNS

It is a great irony that at this moment – when more people share more information more quickly than at any time in human history – government efforts to hide its work from the public are as robust and sophisticated as ever.

The Obama administration’s early promise of transparency is a distant memory. State Department employees delete almost all of their emails. And state and local governments increasingly erect walls to conceal dealings about which the public has an unquestionable right to know.

Amid that context the Charlotte Observer, along with news outlets around the country and other advocates of open government, recognizes Sunshine Week beginning Sunday. The effort to remind people of their right to transparent government coincides each year with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, author of the First Amendment.

“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it,” Madison said, “is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

Madison was warning of what we see today: Some politicians and government workers making it difficult or impossible for the public to hold leaders accountable. They declare public information private, or delay turning records over for years, or charge unreasonable fees.

Associated Press CEO Gary Pruitt, in a column written for Sunshine Week, reports on artificially high costs and delays that governments impose to try to deter public requests for information. In Ferguson, Mo., officials billed the AP $135 an hour to retrieve emails about Michael Brown’s shooting – about 10 times the cost of an entry-level Ferguson clerk’s salary. Pruitt says other organizations were told they’d be charged thousands of dollars for emails and memos about things like Ferguson’s traffic citation policies.

Or consider what happened last year with charter schools in North Carolina. Amid a charter school boom and the financial failure of some schools, Observer reporter Ann Doss Helms tried to report on the schools’ salaries. They are funded, after all, with taxpayer money, and traditional public school salary information is public.

But two advocacy groups argued the state’s public records law didn’t apply to charter schools and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction initially agreed. Helms kept digging, and eventually the state’s top education leaders reversed themselves, saying charter schools did have to release salary information. The legislature passed a law spelling that out explicitly.

State officials similarly balked when the Observer sought information about the state’s medical examiner system. Editor Rick Thames says it took six requests, two conference calls with attorneys and more than a year for the state to provide the public database of every death N.C. medical examiners investigated since 2001.

It’s not uncommon. From closed City Council meetings to the White House, some government officials want to keep you in the dark. You elected them. You pay their salaries. You should insist that they operate in the sunshine.