Some people in government want to hide what they’re doing from you, the public. Others understand that government exists only to serve you.
With that, we present this week’s champion of the people and this week’s lawbreakers, both right here in the Carolinas.
First, the lawbreakers: Bill Russell, president of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and most members of the government advisory group on I-77 tolls. They met in private Wednesday, ignoring a state law that says meetings of public bodies must be open to the public, with few exceptions. As the Observer’s Steve Harrison reported, the law defines a “public body” as any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council or other body of the state. The open meetings law specifically includes public bodies that serve in an “advisory function,” as the tolls group does.
But the group, created by state government, didn’t want the pesky public to hear what members were saying, so the doors were locked. Russell said “it’s closed because we want a free-flowing conversation.”
Kurt Naas, a vocal anti-tolls resident who has been fighting the government on the issue for years, explained on social media what happened.
“Having been on the outside of a number of closed I-77 meetings, I certainly understand the frustration,” Naas wrote. “The rationale for closing the meeting was that, due to the highly charged nature of the issue, the discussions of the group would be more candid and open without the glare of the media spotlight.”
He added: “The meeting was held at the LKN Chamber of Commerce, and as a private entity it was their prerogative to close the meeting, which they exercised.”
Wrong and wrong. Though Naas said “Not sure I agree with any of that, but those are the ground rules,” committee members should not have played by those ground rules. You can’t just close an open meeting because you want to be candid or avoid the glare of the media spotlight. And Russell cannot legally close a meeting that the law requires to be open just by hosting it at his site.
Russell and the DOT are enemies of transparency and the public’s right to know.
Contrast that with Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, who nailed at least one thing in his first State of the State speech on Wednesday. He listed a number of ways transparency in South Carolina government is lacking and called for change. Perhaps the biggest one: South Carolina legislators, incredibly, have exempted themselves from the federal Freedom of Information Act, a law that requires government to provide public documents to the public.
“That destroys public confidence,” McMaster told legislators. “This exemption must end.”
McMaster also called for more authority for the State Ethics Commission to obtain and investigate campaign finance disclosures. And he said legislators should change the law to ensure that anyone who lobbies local government is required to register as a lobbyist.
These should not be controversial ideas. Government exists to serve the public. Locking the public out might be convenient, but it is fundamentally wrong and, incidentally, often leads to bad outcomes for regular folks.
McMaster gets that. Russell and the N.C. DOT do not.