Sunshine Day 2012: Yes, the government can get it right

The When Government Gets It Right panel started with everyone on their feet, as Sue Rowland, moderator and Town of Cary clerk asked everyone who believed in open government to stand up.

The panel consisted of three representatives who have been able to improve the information and transparency of the governments they work for.

Harold Weinbrecht, Town of Cary mayor, decided to get involved in government because he didn’t trust what was going on in town hall.

“That is how most people get involved with local government,” Weinbrecht said. “I said ‘You know what? You need to be providing information to your citizens.’ Well, be careful what you ask for because they said ‘We are going to make an advisory board and you are the chair.’”

One of the first changes Weinbrecht made was to televise all of the meetings. He got on the council in 1999 and was elected as mayor in 2007. His slogan during the election was “give the government back to the people.”

Weinbrecht made his first change the night before he was sworn in when he told officials at town hall that all emails that were sent to him or sent from him would go to the media.

“That Friday I got a call from someone at a news station who said, ‘I have received more emails from you this week than during the entire four years of the previous mayor.’”

But social media,too, is an important tool for governments to use when promoting open communication, said Lee Yount, programmer analyst in the technology department in Catawba County.

Weinbrecht blogs about all of the meetings that he goes to and Yount has created several Twitter and Facebook accounts. All of the information goes on one main social media account, with separate pages for the specific subsets of Catawba county.

“For example, we have a page for our purchasing account. We put bid and surplus information up,” Yount said. “We tell people who request information to follow us on Twitter, so then the information is out there for everyone to see.”

Catawba County has also created a YouTube account, a Flickr account and is using Foursquare by putting tips online for people who check in around government buildings, Yount said.

Annette Privette-Keller, communications director of the Town of Matthews, was a reporter before she went into government.

“I started out as a newspaper editor in Morrisville, North Carolina,” Privette-Keller said. “At some point I decided I want to be on the other side. My goal has to been to be open and help people understand government. There are good people in government and they are trying to do a good job.”

In order to do this she created some principles to help improve transparency and information:

  • Treat Everyone the Same
  • Service Excellence
  • Have a public records policy
  • Discussion with New Reporters
  • Build Relationships
  • Always Be Available
  • Always Call Back
  • Always Get Information
  • It is a Two-Way Street
  • Use Every Communication and Avenue Available
  • Respect Deadlines
  • Never Say No Comment
  • Never Ever Lie

“Information and transparency are two different things,” Weinbrecht said. “I think we are doing a great job with the information but transparency is a different thing.”

— by Rebecca Smith ’12