The people’s government

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 16, 2014

You have the right to remain silent. Everyone knows that line; TV detectives inform suspects of their Miranda rights every time they slap on the handcuffs.
Did you know, though, that you have the right to see any public document our local elected officials use to make their decisions, including drafts? With a few exceptions, you also have the right to attend any meeting that involves three or more members of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, Salisbury City Council or a quorum of any other public body.
Today begins Sunshine Week, an annual tribute to the importance of access to public information. While you won’t hear sunshine laws recited on “Law and Order” or “CSI,” these laws are vital to the fair and legitimate treatment of citizens by public officials. We don’t elect people to do whatever they want without accountability. We have a right to hear their debates, to know where the money goes, and to have a voice in government’s decision-making process.
North Carolina spells out its principles about transparency in its statutes. Whereas public bodies are elected “solely to conduct the people’s business,” the Open Meetings Law says, it is the state’s policy that “the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly.” The Public Records Law is equally emphatic. Public records and information compiled by the state’s agencies and its subdivisions — cities and counties — “are the property of the people.”
It takes vigilance to keep government on track with these principles. For instance, Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration has allowed agencies to charge up to $54 an hour for public-records searches that take staff more than half an hour. The law says people should be able to get copies of public records and information at “free or at minimal cost” — the cost of paper copies or thumb drives, heretofore.
And last year the legislature came close to allowing some local governments to only post notices of public meetings on their websites, rather than publish them in newspapers, as currently required, where more eyes will see them. The N.C. Press Association recently honored state Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, with its Lassiter Award for challenging that effort and speaking up for citizens. “We keep talking about transparency in government, and to me, this was a move in the opposite direction,” Avila said.
This spring and fall, voters should consider candidates’ track records on transparency. We can’t afford officials who shut citizens out of their own government. Everything such officials say and do can be held against them — and should.