Making Sure We Keep the Light On
Connie Ledoux Book
Sunshine Center, Elon University
The history of newspapers has two points of entry that all journalism students are taught; the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg and the beginnings of a literate middle class in the late 1600s. The two attributes made the exchange of ideas possible and those ideas would launch revolutions and give way to democracy.
Sunshine Week is a celebration of open government in our democracy, one week each year set aside to remember the importance of accountability of government to the people it serves. Sunshine acting like literacy and giving way to an informed electorate. The week of March 16 begins the national celebration and on Thursday, March 20 the North Carolina Open Government Coalition will host Sunshine Day at Elon University. Elon launched the Sunshine Center in 2007 as the academic home of the coalition and began creating educational materials for high school civics classes and conducting workshops on the state’s open government laws. We also opened a phone line and maintain a website providing educational resources about the state’s Sunshine Laws.
I’d like to say that North Carolina was leading the nation in these efforts, but we aren’t. Instead we are following and are the 39th state to launch an organization to promote open government and the First Amendment. Elon University also joined a family of several other universities that are academic homes to their state organizations. But hands down, better late than never on initiatives like this one.
The majority of public employees and elected officials practice the principles of open government. In Elon, the city hasn’t held a closed meeting since 1981. North Carolina residents can frequently view the city council meeting on their local cable television government access channel and download the minutes to those meetings online. But as storied Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee told a group of fifth graders when he visited Elon University’s campus a few years ago: “Sunshine Laws are like the light in this room. You don’t know you need them until you don’t have them.”
So when the phone started ringing at the Sunshine Center this year, I knew we needed the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and the Sunshine Center. In the last 12 months we’ve had 187 phone calls and e-mails. The majority of phone calls are from citizens trying to access a document or a meeting. For example, one caller asked what to do when the city refused to provide him minutes from a closed meeting where a land purchase was being discussed. But, frequently the calls are from newly elected local government officials asking what constitutes a meeting. One mayor called because he found out that members of the city council had toured a facility without him. A writer called wanting to access a State Bureau of Investigation file from the 1970s. A parent called wanting access to an email the superintendent had sent around about the school his son attended. The list is 187 long, 187 strong.
These events, coupled with a year that also included a $2.5 million report on Department of Transportation issues that wasn’t immediately released, economic incentives to new businesses discussed in the dark and a newspaper editor being arrested because he refused to leave a meeting he believed should be open to the people, cemented the importance of light on government processes. Like Ben Bradlee noted, it wasn’t until the stories of North Carolinians with the light off made their way to the Sunshine Center and the North Carolina Open Government Coalition that it rang true—better late than never for this state organization.
You can read more about Sunshine Day at Elon University on March 20 and the workshops and speakers being planned by visiting www.ncopengov.org.
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