It’s your right to know
Not long after I began working at the Salisbury Post, my boss asked me to fill in for another reporter and cover a Landis Board of Aldermen meeting. The meeting was that evening, so I went to Town Hall and asked for a copy of the agenda.
The town clerk looked at me like I was crazy and told me I couldn’t have one.
Had the aldermen gotten their copies, I asked. “Yes,” the town clerk replied — and this is a direct quote I’ll never forget — “but you’re not an alderman.”
This is a problem that pervades government agencies from small towns to cities and counties to Raleigh and beyond: public information withheld from the public.
You’d like to be generous and chalk this up to ignorance of the law. In reality, though, it’s more often a willful ignorance on the part of imperious bureaucrats and some elected officials who believe a victory at the ballot box somehow entitles them to a (in their mind) benevolent dictatorship.
They simply know better. Now stop asking questions.
The problem is, this runs up against state statutes that spell out what information a government agency can withhold from public view and what it must divulge to any citizen, as well as what business public bodies must conduct in the open and what they can discuss behind closed doors.
Note the phrase “any citizen.” There’s no special ID needed, no secret handshake, no particular profession. Anyone is entitled to information ruled public, no questions asked.
And that — the no questions asked part — is another problem. I can’t count the number of times I’ve asked for a public document and been met with the response, “And why do you want it?” Usually, I just tell them I work for the newspaper. It’s easier than trying to explain why it’s illegal to ask that.
In the past, the Post and other news organizations have tested local government agencies by sending in people — sometimes citizen volunteers, sometimes reporters they don’t know — to request public information and document the responses. The results have varied widely. But we don’t have to do that to see recent examples of government agencies and bodies doing things in secret that should be done in the full light of public observation:
• In September, before paying $3.45 million for the struggling and mostly empty Salisbury Mall, Rowan County commissioners toured the property but refused to allow a Post reporter to join them.
Walking around the shopping center, they conducted what was essentially a moving closed session.
When asked to provide a statutory basis for the closed session, as required by law, board Chairman Jim Sides cited economic development – which involves business location or expansion, not a government buying property for its own use. Challenged on whether the discussion was really about economic development, Sides simply said it “very well could be.”
• This week, the Salisbury City Council met in closed session for five hours before announcing a “mutual” agreement with Doug Paris to end his tenure as city manager. No explanation has been given about why this happened, but with this marathon closed session added to the agenda at the end of the meeting, it’s highly doubtful these “mutual” feelings were there beforehand.
And with Paris two years into a three-year contract, he’s walking away with nearly $210,000 in severance and a year of city-funded health insurance. Given the cost to the taxpayers, shouldn’t they be getting a better explanation?
• Also this week, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education announced it was trading its property on North Ellis Street for an assemblage of lots on North Main Street, where the school system plans to build a consolidated central office.
For weeks, school system officials and board members refused to identify the location of the property they were acquiring — as required by state law — and defended that misguided decision after the announcement. Chairman Richard Miller claimed the board “didn’t buy” the North Main Street property. “It was a gift to us.”
Dr. Miller, a “gift” typically doesn’t come with the stipulation that you “give” the other party property worth $700,000. No, this was not a reason. It was an excuse for violating state law, and a bad one.
Not that there’s ever a good excuse — or any acceptable reason — for violating the law. If there is one, I’m sure it’s in a public document somewhere. Show me.
Scott Jenkins is news editor of the Salisbury Post.