Bill could broaden government access

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Daily Reflector of Greenville
North Carolina citizens should monitor with interest the progress of a bill that would broaden access to government documents and ensure greater adherence to public records law. The legislation survived a July 8 attempt to alter it and faces a battle to passage.
N.C. Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gastonia, the bill’s sponsor, believes the measure is needed to broaden the scope and effectiveness of existing law. He is correct, and a careful watch of the legislation is sure to illuminate those lawmakers who agree.
Access to public records may be a principle central to representative government, but it is one too often ignored. There exists an unreasonable tension between citizens and their government, between the gatekeepers of public records and those who would pry open the doors. While officials are expected to err on the side of openness, they fail to do so with alarming frequency.
North Carolina is fortunate to have an effective and broad public records law, but it does have flaws. Two of those would be addressed by the Hoyle Open Government Act now under consideration by the Legislature.
A provision passed in 2005 gives courts discretion to not award legal fees to individuals and businesses that win public records lawsuits. That makes the pursuit of those documents a cost-prohibitive endeavor for smaller newspapers that cannot afford to pay those fees. Nor should they have to when their argument is judged correct under the law. Hoyle’s act would eliminate that discretion.
The state’s public records law also lacks sufficient official oversight to ensure compliance and understanding. The proposed legislation would create an Open Government Unit within the N.C. Department of Justice, including funding for three attorneys and a paralegal. The group would educate officials about their obligations and mediate disputes in an effort to avoid the need for legal action.
The bill came before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 8, where representatives of county and municipal governments lobbied to eliminate the provision regarding legal fees. That measure failed and the bill won committee approval, although it could foreshadow opposition ahead.
Citizens will be watching to see where their delegates line up on the issue of openness in government, and there is only one correct position on that matter.