Editorial: Transparency could spur involvement

Published 10:10 pm Saturday, January 6, 2018

Government leaders in Rowan and Salisbury could set goals for 2018 in several critical areas: economic development, public safety, education, health and more. Here’s one action that would help in all those areas and more: increase government transparency.

For citizens to support public initiatives in a collaborative spirit, they need confidence that they’re getting the whole story and can have real input.

Transparency means holding open meetings with adequate advance notice, sharing information and documents and taking every measure possible to remove the appearance of secrecy. That means obeying not just the letter of the state’s open meetings and public records laws, but also the spirit.

The county’s big boards do all this pretty well — the Board of Commissioners, City Council and Board of Education. But when they or their top leaders appoint committees and task forces, the law is not as closely followed.

Take committees and task forces. They study key issues in a way that a full, elected board cannot with any efficiency — gathering and analyzing information in order to make a recommendation. Yet sometimes the public does not hear about these groups until the recommendation is made, even though as public bodies they are required to have open meetings.

The state’s sunshine laws regarding open meetings and public records apply to more than the boards we elect. They also cover any committees or other groups appointed by those elected boards and officials. Here’s an excerpt from the open meetings law’s defnition of “public body”:

“[A]ny elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council, or other body of the State, or of one or more counties, cities, school administrative units, … that (i) is composed of two or more members and (ii) exercises or is authorized to exercise a legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, or advisory function.” (Italics added for emphasis.)

Another trouble area in transparency is the proliferation of private nonprofits that are essentially government agencies taking in a nominal amount of private money. The Salisbury-Rowan Community Action Agency is one such group; it handles millions in Head Start funding, yet is a private nonprofit.

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare is perhaps the most notorious example — an agency that handles millions in Medicaid funding for behavioral heath but also claims the role of private nonprofit. Its steady move toward privatization, in fact, produced the high CEO pay and severance packages that prompted the state to oust the board and CEO. Cardinal reached the point of claiming independence from the state — a bridge too far for legislators and taxpayers alike.

Newly energized voters plugged into the election process last fall and likely will now follow the governing process more closely, too. Give them every chance to be knowledgeable and involved by embracing transparency.