Sunshine Day celebrates freedom of information for private, public citizens alike

Public records are just that--public. Every citizen is entitled to view records of an arrest warrant and go to certain government meetings--and they should be allowed to do so. Protecting and celebrating these rights is what the Sunshine Center and the North Carolina Open Government Coalition does annually during its Sunshine Day events.

This year’s event, held March 16 at the newly opened International Civil Rights Center and Museum in downtown Greensboro, N.C., celebrated investigative journalism and Greensboro’s response to public records requests. The day’s activities drew attendance from journalists, citizens, academics and government officials alike.

Here is a rundown of the day’s event:

Sunshine Day Welcome, NCOGC Heroine of the Year

Hugh Stevens, the president of the NCOGC, provided an update about Sunshine Laws in the state and honored the 2010 Open Government Heroine, Sandy Semans.

Semans is a reporter with the Outer Banks Sentinel and has ousted, or helped oust, at least 12 corrupt politicians. She discussed lessons about loving America, and what that means as a citizen.

“We are its parents,” she said, “and so when it disappoints us we have a moral obligation to make it right.”

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READ MORE about Semans

NPR’s Nina Totenberg delivered the Sunshine Day keynote address.

Update on status of open government in North Carolina

Following the luncheon, several discussion panels met in the adjoining auditorium of the museum to hear from Charles Coble, an attorney who works on many public records cases, who compared the transparency of North Carolina’s government compared to other states.

“We are passionate about the principle that our government ought to function clearly and transparently,” he said. “This is something you trace back to Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers. It is under some real assault these days.”

The cost of obtaining records is the main reason why public records litigations are decreasing, Coble said. Particularly, he referenced a New York Times study that found that while litigation by large conglomerates such as Hearst increased, smaller newspapers were finding it financially difficult to sue government agencies for access to public records.

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Greensboro’s response to public records requests

Following Coble’s remarks, a panel convened to discuss Greensboro’s new approach to transparent governing.

Marsh Prouse, of the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, said there’s a different reason why neighborhoods and the media approach access to public records information.

“The media’s perspective is different than the neighborhood,” Prouse said. “The media is looking to push the envelope- some real controversy that’s bringing the media to the table in the first place. In the neighborhood, it’s more about zoning or land enforcement.”

Denise Turner, the assistant city mananger, illuminated points of a new proposal that involves training city employees about how to disseminate and understand public records better. The proposal will be discussed within the Neighborhood Congress and come before the Greensboro city council on April 6.

Turner said the primary goal is not to help ordinary people find the public records they are looking for, but rather to track the records that have been requested and get them to the requester in a timely manner.

“We want to get away from the ‘no one’s responsible, so no one does it’ mentality,” she said.

Becky Jo Peterson-Buie, the chief deputy city attorney, helped illuminate what is and what isn’t public information. Things that are tangible and can be seen, heard or read, she said, are public records when they have to do with transactions of the government.

READ MORE about Greensboro’s response to public records requests

Big stories fueled by open government

The next panel featured journalists who represented news organizations from across North Carolina and who had all needed public records to complete their major investigative journalism pieces.

Ames Alexander of the Charlotte Observer investigated slow ambulances in Mecklenberg County and the exorbitant amounts of money they were making from non-emergency calls. Dick Barron of the Greensboro News & Record investigated Dell Computer’s movement into the Triad area and their failure to release employment records. Andy Curliss of the Raleigh News & Observer was instrumental in investigating former N.C. House Speaker Jim Black and former Governor Mike Easley’s stronghanded attempts to ensure his wife, Mary, was promoted at North Carolina State University.

They talked about their own experiences with public records and highlighted examples of where they met with resistance, but ultimately read through hundreds of pages of text to find the data they needed.

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Investigative journalism

The fourth and final panel featured Sally Kestin from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Jasmine McNealy of the LSU Manship School of Journalism, and Elon alumnus Matt Belanger, who works for WGAL-8 in Harrisburg, Penn. The panel focused on topics of public records, privacy and medical releases, shield laws, privacy and libel, and police car ride-alongs.

The panel discussed convergence and privacy, as well as ethics in journalism.

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After the panels, Cory Friedman of the Gaston Gazette said he found this year’s Sunshine Day event to be well produced, educational and informative.

“The programs were wonderful,” he said. “I will take the information I learned back to my colleagues at the newspaper.”

Rick Willis, a chair of the NCOGC agreed, saying the sometimes tense dialogue between journalist and government officials is an important one.

“I do think it’s a good illustration of some of the conflict between journalists and government officials over public records,” he said. “I’ve been to every Sunshine Day. It’s good when you can get a group of people who are passionate about public records and open government together.”

— by Lauren Ramsdell, ’13