Make Public Information Public

By Jay Schalin

(Editor’s note: This article was published in the Raleigh News & Observer on April 8, 2013.)

It is time to open up North Carolina’s government operations to the public view. The North Carolina legislature has a great opportunity this year to make state and local governments more ethical and efficient.

Some progress was made last year, with the passage of State Law 2012-169. That bill requires non-profit organizations that get more than $5,000 in government funding to make their financial statements part of the public record.

Yet that was just a small first step in the right direction. The tradition of conducting official business behind closed doors continues to enable unethical behavior in North Carolina. There is no longer any reason for this to continue, as the digital age has removed any physical barriers to full transparency. Making public information truly public, available online for all to see, will end much of the temptation for officials to stray from their duties.

Public information requests have played a big part in exposing improper behavior by North Carolina public officials in recent years. One such request by the News & Observer provided the emails that revealed illegal collusion between N.C. State chancellor James Oblinger and the governor’s office in 2009, which resulted in the chancellor resigning and Mary Easley, the governor’s wife, getting fired.

Another request by The N&O denied by UNC-Chapel Hill but ordered by a judge revealed information such as the payment of football players’ parking tickets by someone in the employ of the UNC-Chapel Hill coaching staff, which was a likely factor in the head coach’s firing.

Despite these victories for open government, the laws of the land regarding public information generally remain too restrictive. In many cases, agencies can hide behind S.L. 126-23, which declares some facts about government employees to be public and then states that all other information about them is protected. In one instance, UNC-Chapel Hill denied me a request for the titles of professors’ published articles, since they are not included among the public items in S.L. 126-23, despite the fact that articles are published to make them public by definition!

But the proposed legislation will help address many of the problems. Sen. Thom Goolsby (R-New Hanover) is leading the way, introducing three bills.

Perhaps the most controversial is Senate Bill 125, which criminalizes the refusal by public officials to abide by public records requests.

Another Goolsby-sponsored bill is S.B. 331, which, if enacted, amends the state constitution to include existing public records and open meetings.

A third Goolsby-sponsored transparency bill is S.B. 332, which increases the amount of personnel information that is public. Formerly, only the date and type of each disciplinary action, transfer or dismissal of government workers was made available; under the new bill, the public will also be told the reasons for these actions as well. Additionally, performance records of public employees will be made available under S.B. 332. 

But the push for greater transparency is not a partisan issue. S.B. 158, named the Accountability for Taxpayer Investment Act, is perhaps the most comprehensive of this year’s transparency bills, with Sen.Andrew Brock (R-Davie) as the main sponsor.

However, it was initially introduced two years ago by then-freshman Sen. Eric Mansfield (formerly D-Cumberland), who was appalled by the lack of information available even to legislators. It makes program-level information available online for all to see, including: a clear mission statement; a logic model that shows how the mission is addressed; a variety of outcome measures and standards; organization charts; how programs get their money and spend their money. This easy access to budget numbers and more is the very sort of ammunition needed to hold officials’ feet to the fire.

Last year, S.B. 158 (then S.B. 877) passed its first reading in the Senate before stalling in the finance committee. This year, Brock said, it again has strong support, adding that it can take as long as eight years for a bill to become law.

Neither party has a monopoly on ethical improprieties, and all citizens benefit by reducing corruption, waste and inefficiency. The likely result of opening up government is a reduction of such problems – the only reason to be against greater transparency is a desire to keep the citizenry in the dark.