Thursday, July 17, 2008

Speaker: No time for open records bill

House Speaker Joe Hackney has told legislators and lobbyists there's not enough time left in the General Assembly's budget session to consider a Senate bill beefing up the state's open government law. The Senate unanimously approved Sen. David Hoyle's bill Monday night to award reasonable legal fees to citizens who file lawsuits to enforce the state's model open records law. The News & Observer's Dan Kane reported that Hackney told Rep. Deborah Ross, chair of the committee the bill was assigned to, that "we don't have enough time." Here's a link to the N&O story.
With lawmakers hoping to get out of town for the year Friday, there really isn't enough time to consider every bill. But there is enough time to consider any bill that legislative leaders think ought to be considered. For instance, both the House and Senate were working on a bill to allow online scalping of tickets to sports and other events, and to allow longer trucks and wider boats to be hauled on state roads. And the Senate was working on last-minutes changes in a new ethics reform bill that would make it easier to wine and dine legislators and other public officials. Why is there time for that?
The notion that there's not enough time for an open records bill this important is especially curious because it was a resident of Hackney's district who sued the local elections board over failure to comply with both open records and open meetings laws. A judge found the election board had violated both on numerous occasions, but when the plaintiff tried to recover the $35,000 spent suing the board to enforce what is, after all, a state law, the judge awarded only 10 percent of the legal fees. That's why the N.C. Press Association, of which this newspaper is a member, has been pressing the legislature to automatically award legal fees rather than allowing a judge to decide whether and how much a citizen can get back in attorney's fees.
The Senate bill also includes a provision creating an Open Government Unit in the N.C. Department of Justice to media open records disputes -- a provision Hackney likes, the N&O reported. The good news on this is that Attorney General Roy Cooper -- whose office supports all of Sen. Hoyle's bill -- has already created the Open Government Unit administratively and put it to work training public officials on their responsibilities under the state's sunshine laws. The bill would have but the AG's Open Government Unit in state law. Here's a link to the N.C. Guide to Open Government and Public Records, a project of the N.C. Attorney General's Office and the N.C. Press Association.

16 comments:

David McKnight said...

Does the N.C. Press Association have agreements with offices or departments of state government, or with the N.C. General Assembly, on other "projects" besides the open records law? Woudln't it better for the press and the public if the N.C. Press Association refrained from "partnering" with state government on information-access or press freedom issues?

It is especially interesting that the present Speaker of the N.C. House is from the home county (Orange) of the flagship campus of the University of North Carolina, whose School of Journalism and Mass Communications is well regarded across the country. Does the N.C. Legislature have any agreements with the N.C. Press Association which give the Legislature the "right" to oversee or regulate the content or placement of journalistic writing endeavors in North Carolina?

Advocacy of open meetings and open records certainly appeals to our sense or priorities for responsible, citizen-oriented governmental affairs in Raleigh. But sometimes even the conduct of official governmental meetings and availability of state governmental records do not in themselves guarantee that the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Rights of the N.C. Constitution will be respected and honored in government-press "agreements."

North Carolina editors and political scientists take pride in the fact that a "Speaker Ban Law" from the 1960s was successfully overturned. Let us hope that the N.C. Legislature does not endorse a "Writer Ban Law" in these times.

As for "open records" in a wide range of categories, including medical and employment records, let it also be evaluated by citizens groups and the press as well as to whether all of this information should be considered as appropriately in the proper domain for public disclosure in the first place.

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