Editorial: County needs clear policy

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 8, 2008

Rowan Jobs Initiative is within its legal rights to keep its records private. But to prevent future skirmishes over sharing minutes and such, county commissioners should stipulate that any group receiving county funds henceforth be willing to open its records.
The issue arose and snowballed after commissioners decided to cut off county funding for RJI, which also receives city funds and private money, all to fund marketing campaigns promoting Rowan County. Commissioners cited disapproval over RJI’s hiring of Miller Davis, a local agency owned by then-RJI board member Mike Miller. When RJI leaders put up a fight in Miller’s defense, the commissioners’ disapproval intensified, to put it mildly. Now two of them, Jim Sides and Tina Hall, want copies of RJI’s records.
Though RJI has received $325,000 in county funds over the past four years, it is a private body, created by the Committee of 100. The N.C. Court of Appeals has ruled that the provision of public money does not convert a private agency’s records to public records, so RJI does not have to show the public anything. To their credit, RJI leaders have offered to share materials with commissioners one-on-one ó stopping short of actually putting them in commissioners’ hands, which would make them public documents. Commissioners don’t have the power to force the issue.
But the county board does have the power to attach strings to appropriations going forward, and it should. Agencies that receive tax funds should expect to account for them, leaving no mystery about how public money is spent. Commissioners would have a duty to apply that policy across-the-board. Other groups receiving county money that could be affected by such a policy would include Rowan Rescue Squad, the Economic Development Commission, the Yadkin-PeeDee Association, Rowan Arts Council, Rowan Museum and others.
While the county sets the new policy, RJI leaders need to look beyond their battle with commissioners and consider the public. The more RJI resists, the more taxpayers wonder. Is there something to hide? The county may be out of the funding picture now, but city taxpayers are beginning to wonder, too. The only way RJI can fully answer the question is to open up.
There may be a middle ground in one step the county can take now, thanks to state law. If the county appropriates $1,000 or more in a fiscal year to a nonprofit corporation or organization, it can require the organization to have an audit performed for that year. It may also require that the organization file a copy of the audit report with the county, which would be a public document. The law exempts some groups such as rescue squads for some reason, but it could apply to RJI. The county should proceed on that course.
It’s unfortunate that a good faith effort by local business people to help promote Rowan County ó using some of their own money as well as public funds ó has deteriorated in this way. On top of Sides’ and Hall’s votes last week against incentives for Duke Power’s $600 million investment here, the commission is directing a lot of negative energy toward the business community. But public money is public money, and those who don’t want to account for tax funds should not request them. If that wasn’t clear before, it is now.