The following article was adapted from an oped published today in the News & Observer.
Newspapers, activists and all who care about open government recently celebrated “Sunshine Week.” Now it’s time for North Carolina conservatives to make 2014 Sunshine Year.
People across the spectrum profess the importance of open records, transparent government and the people’s right to know what their government is up to. But this year means something extra to us at the Civitas Institute as we have been caught up in our own highly publicized public records battle with government and its allies.
Civitas for years has used the North Carolina public records law to request (and sometimes even get) records out of our state and local governments. As a conservative organization, we often look for data on spending and salaries, among other hard information. But we also look to see how public agencies go about their activities and whether they are following the law.
Last year we requested records from the UNC School of Law for Gene Nichol, a law professor and head of the UNC Poverty Center. Our request was the subject of news stories and editorials questioning our motives. A group of professors protested and demanded that the governor tell us to stop. (Note to academics: We don’t work for government.)
Few of our critics seem to understand that the law does not require that people say why they want the records; they can just ask. That is a real beauty of the law and one that needs to be more widely known. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can ask for public records, from your local town’s checkbook to emails from the governor’s office. If the records are not personnel-related and don’t fall under a few other exceptions, the agency must turn them over. If it doesn’t, it is supposed to tell you what it held back and cite the specific legal reason for the refusal.
The first thing our request showed was that the UNC law school violated university policy by holding a closed forum. It just so happened that all of those invited were liberal activists and that almost all were of one political party. Nichol and others went out of their way to conceal the meeting and to keep people from attending. They did this using taxpayer money, your money! As for the protesting professors, surprise! Their leader was involved in the forum.
There are costs involved in producing public records, such as worker time or copying. The law allows government to charge for costs. What costs are allowable, however, has always been a contentious point. We have worked with good people who went out of their way to comply quickly and efficiently, and we have worked with not-so-good actors who delayed and tried to hold us up for money.
Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration has attempted to charge for records requests made by numerous groups. I do not know the full details or the volume of the requests, though I have been told it is considerable. To me, the volume is irrelevant; the important thing is to be open and transparent. Do whatever it takes to be open and transparent! If anyone in the administration had asked me, I would have advised that it comply and track costs. If we are to have open government, there will be costs, and we should work those costs into budgets.
The legislature needs to know how much to allocate so state agencies comply with the law, but soon legislators should start cutting that money out of the budget. Why? Because doing so would force government agencies on all levels to make the process easier and less costly for themselves by putting more complete information online where anyone can access it without going through government gatekeepers. That is the only way we will have true transparency and sunshine.
This method should also be implemented at all levels of government (yes, including you, UNC system) so what government is doing is not mysterious or hidden. If you work for government and don’t want citizens to know what you are doing, get out of government and work somewhere else. The people pay your salary and provide the tax money you spend and they have an unabridged right to know what you do with your day and how you spend their money. They are your boss!
Those of us on the right should make this a top priority this year and every year. Because we as a whole distrust government, we believe it is imperative to keep an eye on it. People in government will no doubt complain that what I propose will make their work more difficult. To that I say yea! If government finds it inconvenient to do more things, then maybe public employees will concentrate on doing those things government should be doing correctly. If government does less but does it better that is not just a victory for conservatives, it is a victory for everyone.
While some (especially liberals and progressives) may think North Carolina conservatives now have control over state and many local governments, to quote President Reagan, “Trust but verify.” That is a good policy today and especially in the future, when elections produce different results, as they most assuredly will.