Fight for public records is about our right to know

This week – which happens to be National “Sunshine Week” in the open government world – N.C. Senate President Berger (R-Eden) and his Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca (R-Hendersonville) will be part of an historic effort to preserve the public’s right to know through ensuring that notices of planned government actions reach the greatest number of citizens in newspapers and on newspaper websites.

At a state Capitol press conference on Tuesday, Senator Apodaca joined House leaders to announce compromise legislation that would preserve the public’s right to see public notices of government action widely in print and on newspaper websites – instead of potentially having notices appear only on government-operated websites – while providing cities and counties a reduction in the cost of placing these notices.

This is the same concept embraced in 2012 by the Florida legislature, with the backing of the Florida League of Cities. It has served citizens of that state well, especially those who do not have or cannot afford internet access.

The backing of this legislation by General Assembly Republican leadership is historic. Efforts were made to advance the public’s right to know in the last two sessions of the General Assembly. Other issues took priority.

Despite strong votes in the House in favor of preserving public notices in newspapers and on their websites, the legislation never made it out of the gates in the Senate. Now Apodaca, with the support of other ranking North Carolina Senate leaders, has sponsored compromise legislation this year in the form of Senate Bill 129. Capitol observers are saying that Berger is giving the green light to saving the public’s right to know. And we know that other respected members of Senate leadership support it – Senators Rick Gunn (R-Alamance), Ralph Hise (R-Madison), Norman Sanderson (R-Pamlico), and Shirley Randleman (R-Surry).

Why is this important?

Apart from the time the nation takes every year during “Sunshine Week” to pause to honor government transparency in federal, state, and local government, the legislation now moving forward in Raleigh signals a shift at the highest levels of government to embrace accountability and to promote the public’s confidence in government operations.

With passage of SB 129 (and counterpart House Bill 156), lawmakers can make a statement that government interests proposing actions that will potentially affect the public will have to provide meaningful and far-reaching notice the same way that private interests are required to do (estate executors noticing potential creditors, real estate developers noticing proposed, permanent street closings).

The legislation will also remove the temptation by local government officials, some of whom want the exclusive control of government notice publication, to retaliate against unfavorable press coverage by removing public notices from newspapers. One Republican lawmaker told a House committee in Raleigh that giving that power to local governments would “wreak havoc” with free press rights in his district.

Access to government records ought to be a near sacred right in this democracy. The public’s full knowledge about government lies at the heart of it. Yet time and time again we see various government interests all but ignoring their duty to be open with the public, whether it’s a state university concealing records about academic fraud, a school board refusing to tell the public why its superintendent was fired or a police department declining to reveal why a police officer was suspended.

In far too many instances, the public and press are forced to take legal action against their government to secure the access to records to which the public is entitled. And it shouldn’t come to that.

So this Sunshine Week we ought to celebrate those who stand up for the public’s right to know. At home, senators and representatives are veritable heroes in a battle for public notices that has been raging in this state and across the country for a decade. In Washington, the Associated Press deserves the nation’s gratitude for taking legal action this week and pursuing its five-year, Freedom of Information quest against the U.S. State Department for records the public and press deserved to see a long time ago. Together, government and press leaders have stepped forward to do what few are willing to try: promote transparency and, with it, the public’s trust in government.

John Bussian is a Raleigh-based lawyer who serves as Legislative Counsel to the N.C. Press Association.