jdnews.com: Public access still a difficult pursuit

From jdnews.com (3/20/09): The topic of open government has been basking in attention this week as First Amendment advocates across the country observed Sunshine Week.

Thankfully, some of those warm rays seem to have reached Raleigh, where state Rep. George Cleveland introduced two bills that would strengthen North Carolina’s public-records laws.

One of the bills filed by the Onslow County Republican would make it a misdemeanor offense for the custodian of any public records to fail to turn over those records when asked to do so.

That bill is certain to draw strong opposition from government bureaucrats far and wide. They have argued that public-records law violations generally arise out of ignorance or confusion about the law rather than criminal behavior.

Maybe so, at least in some cases, but the result – withholding of information that belongs to the public – is the same.

Cleveland’s second bill would mandate that judges award attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party in public-records lawsuits. Currently, the law allows judges that option but does not require it.

Although similar measures introduced in the past have not found legislative support, Cleveland defends his legislation by saying that the state’s sunshine laws are insufficient – they simply have no bite since noncompliance often carries no real penalty.

He’s absolutely right. And violations of public-records law will persist until the General Assembly gets serious about changing that fact.

Of course, dealing will those who fail to live up to their legal obligations is only part of the solution to maintaining access to public information.

A recent Elon University poll asked more than 600 respondents statewide a few questions about public records. The results were surprising.

For instance, 52 percent of those polled said they had tried to obtain a public document. It was heartening to know that 83 percent were able to get what they wanted.

It was followed by a more troubling number. More than 50 percent also said the process was difficult or very difficult.

That’s unacceptable.

Access to public records should be no more challenging than driving to the local government office or calling up the documents online. Taxpayers generate the paperwork and should be allowed to have every scrap of it they’re entitled to under the law.

This brings us to the second troublesome figure in the survey. Almost 63 percent of North Carolinians say they don’t know a whole lot about what access they might have to public documents and meetings.

Yes, it’s incumbent upon government to make the process as simple as possible. It’s up to our legislators to ensure that the laws regarding public access are effective.

But citizens also have a responsibility to understand what it is they’re asking for and how to get it.

Uninformed and gullible is a bad combination.

jdnews.com Staff Editorial