Editorial: The spirit of openness

  • Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2013 12:46 p.m.

Arrest reports. Tax listings. Teachers’ salaries. County commissioners’ email. The city budget and audit. What your neighbor paid for his house. Politicians’ campaign finance reports.

All these things and more are a matter of public record in this state and nation. Though openness can get uncomfortable when it hits close to home or reveals something embarrassing, our style of governing in the United States hinges on that openness. Voters need information. We don’t inspect every public document every day, but knowing that we can brings a degree of accountability to government.

The same goes for meetings of elected officials. The public has a right to know when and where a board or committee is meeting so we can attend, know what’s going on and voice an opinion when an issue concerns us.

During Sunshine Week, March 10-16 this year, journalists raise the public’s awareness of the information that should be available and take stock of how transparently government operates. Local governments in Rowan and Salisbury follow the letter of the law well, though now and then an official will need reminding.

It’s especially refreshing when someone does more than the minimum that the law clearly requires. Case in point: Commission Chairman Jim Sides has made sure Rowan County government posts a great deal of public information online, from employee salaries to the county’s check register. The state’s Public Records Law does not require that the information appear online, but the county has gone above and beyond the letter of the law. For that, the John Locke Foundation gave Rowan County an A+, and Sides is set to take part Monday in a Sunshine Day panel discussion in Raleigh on the theme, “Government Gets it Right.”

But government does not always get it right, as evidenced by Sides’ refusal to open a meeting of top county and school officials several weeks ago. The Salisbury Post asked that the meeting be open to the public, saying the groups represented subcommittees whose meetings are required to be open. Sides disagreed and, after a prayer, called the meeting to a close because reporters from the Post and WBTV had shown up.

To his credit, school board Chairman Richard Miller said whether the meeting was required to be open was unclear, but he would prefer to hold the meeting in public if there was any question about it. That’s a clear demonstration of respect for not only the letter but also the spirit of the state’s Open Meetings Law.

The media have the job of being a watchdog on government, but the biggest job rests on the shoulders of citizens — to pay attention, be involved and care about the direction of our government. Transparency means little if no one cares.

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