Let’s give three cheers for two North Carolina Senators. Last week state Sens. Thom Goolsby (R-New Hanover) and Tom Apodaca (R-Buncombe) sponsored legislation (SB 125) to make it a class 3 misdemeanor to violate public records and open meetings laws, which would at long last give those laws some teeth.
North Carolina’s Public Records law (State Statutes Ch. 132) is citizen-friendly. The statutes say: “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people.” Aside from expensive and time consuming law suits, however, the general public has few ways of ensuring they can rightfully obtain public records. Furthermore, the law provides no penalties for those who fail to comply with the law. For too long ordinary citizens have had to put with officials who think they are above the law. This bill is a positive step to make sure public records laws are obeyed.
Many state and county agencies do a good job of responding to requests. Still, there are some who flout the law. Rather than provide information in a timely fashion, bureaucrats offer delay tactics or provide one of umpteen reasons as to why the document will be delayed or won’t be available. Thus, obtaining public records often becomes a game of stalling versus perseverance. Sadly, the government office that uses these tactics is often successful. Citizens don’t have the time or money to keep after officials – and the agencies know it.
Civitas makes countless public records requests every year. Over the past five years I’ve learned North Carolina overall has a good public records law. The laws only work, however, if local and state officials must actually follow it. SB 125 levels the playing field. It puts a penalty on those who fail to comply with public records and open meeting laws.
There are, however, two practical considerations SB 125 must clarify to become effective law. First, the law will have to define which official in each state agency is responsible for ensuring compliance with public records and who would ultimately be held responsible in the event the law was violated. Right now, responsibility over public records request is diffused throughout state government, and that’s part of the problem. Second, the law will have to determine the definition of compliance. That is, how long does an agency have to respond to a request? Plus, does “respond” mean to provide copies of records or merely allow an individual to inspect documents? Clarity on some of these issues will go a long way in remedying many of the current problems.
SB 125 provides that those who violate public records or public meeting laws be charged with a Class 3 misdemeanor. If Sen. Goolsby gets his way, however, those charged would get up to 20 days in jail. It’s a credible deterrent to ensure government officials pay a price if they put themselves above the law.
If North Carolina state government is sincere about public records being the “property of the people,” SB 125 will go a long way to ensuring that lofty goal is realized.