Inaugural Sunshine Award winners announced

At Sunshine Day in Durham, the N.C. Open Government Coalition today announced the winners of its inaugural awards program in four categories: Advocacy, Government, Journalism, Citizen. 

The North Carolina Open Government Coalition is pleased to announce the winners of its inaugural awards program. In 2014 the coalition’s board decided to institute a new awards program to recognize individuals and institutions in North Carolina that get it right. From government employees who excel at providing information to the public; to journalists who effectively use the public records law to tell important stories; to those whose advocacy leads to greater transparency; and to citizens who take advantage of their right to know for the benefit of their neighbors, we salute them all.

The winners are:

Advocacy: Gary Jackson of The Jackson Law Group

In 2008 Carolinas Healthcare System filed a lawsuit against Wachovia over management of the hospital’s investment accounts. In 2011 the hospital entered into a confidential settlement with Wachovia and agreed to dismiss the case. Charlotte attorney Gary Jackson requested a copy of the settlement from the hospital, which is subject to the Public Records Law. When the request was denied, Jackson filed a lawsuit against the hospital. The case was dismissed by a superior court judge on the grounds that the section of the records law dealing with settlement agreements only referred to cases “initiated against” a government agency, not ones that the government brought against others.

Jackson appealed to the Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel of that court ruled unanimously in December that the settlement agreement was a public record. In a strong opinion for the public’s right to know, the court found that a record is public unless there is a specific exemption. Since no exemption existed, the agreement must be released. This case clarified an important issue in the public records law. Jackson told The Charlotte Observer that he filed the lawsuit because he did not think the public was getting as much information from the hospital as it deserves. 

“Sunlight is an effective disinfectant,” he said. “Nobody’s saying CHS did anything wrong. But we have a right to know what they did.”

Government: Deputy Treasurer Brenda Williams, N.C. Department of State Treasurer

Deputy Treasurer Brenda Williams is in charge of the Unclaimed Property Division of the N.C. Department of State Treasurer. The division oversees the state’s escheat fund, which is where money is held, when the rightful owner can’t be found, until it is claimed.  Williams joined the division in 2013 and began an effort to modernize the office to make it easier for the public to reclaim lost property. The division regularly conducts Cash-a-Thons for television views, and has held more than 25 outreach events across the state where it has made more than 4,000 matches reconnecting people with more than $1 million. It has also improved its “Claim Your Cash” website to make it easier to find and file a claim online. In fiscal year 2013-14, the Unclaimed Property Division returned $59.3 million of property to owners, a 16.9 percent increase from $50.7 million the year before.

One of Williams colleagues at the Department of State Treasurer said this in nominating her: “Brenda has been a tireless champion for educating citizens of North Carolina about the Unclaimed Property Division, and more importantly reuniting citizens with their property.”  

Journalism: Dan Kane of The News & Observer

Kane’s tireless reporting on the academic and athletic scandals at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill earned him multiple nominations for the inaugural Sunshine Award in Journalism. It was the importance of his work, not the quantity of nominations, that led the coalition to give him the honors. Kane first revealed academic concerns involving athletes at the university in 2011 by closely examining court records of an athlete who sued the university. Since then his reporting has continued to reveal important pieces of information, often learned via public records requests, about academic problems in Chapel Hill.  For example, after an investigation by former Governor Jim Martin was completed, Kane used emails obtained through public records to show a relationship between the chair of an academic department and the athletics support staff that Martin’s investigation had failed to find.  

Here’s a sampling of the nominations on Kane’s behalf:

“Dan has been absolutely vital to disclosure of the truth,” one nominator wrote.  “His reporting has caused him suffering in the form of threats to his person.  Yet, he refuses to be intimidated and remains indefatigable in the pursuit of restoring integrity at the university we all have greatly admired.”

“He has stuck to his principles, stayed with a challenging story over many years and attempted to bring transparency to a situation at UNC-Chapel Hill that is troubling and fraught with potential backlash for whistle blowers and journalists alike,” another wrote.

Citizen: Kurt Naas of Cornelius

Kurt Naas is a Charlotte-area engineer by trade. He’s also a vocal proponent of widening Interstate 77 north of Charlotte instead of using tolls in managed lanes that would fluctuate in price based on how congested the road is at any given time. The heavier the congestion, the more expensive it is to hop into the toll lane and cruise to your destination on time. A Spanish company contracted by the state would manage the lanes, and set the prices.  

Naas studied the traffic data and predicted that tolls could cost far more than state transportation officials were letting on. He made numerous public presentations of his own research. And Naas founded an opposition group called Widen I-77. In the summer of 2014, Naas claims gained even more credibility when a public records request his group made was fulfilled. He’d turned up a 2012 state study that estimated tolls on I-77 could be $20 or more round-trip during peak congestion.

Naas told The Charlotte Observer that he took on the managed lanes fight because leaders weren’t asking tough questions. “That’s what ruffles my feathers,” he told the paper.