In this country, the people own the government. It’s ours. End of debate.
That’s something we can all be thankful for. A bill in the North Carolina General Assembly is attempting to enshrine this simple fact in the state constitution. We would encourage readers to write, call or email your lawmakers asking them to support it (Sen. Ralph Hise, who represents part of Haywood County, is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill).
The legislation – House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 67 – would put an amendment to the state constitution on the 2012 ballot for voter approval. The wording is yet to be finalized, but in essence it would make access to government records and meetings a right under the North Carolina Constitution.
The need for the amendment is something those of us in the press probably appreciate more than most. Every few days we get stonewalled by some public official when requesting documents that are a matter of public record. Sometimes there is a legitimate question of what is a public record and what isn’t, but other times it’s just a petty display of power by someone who holds access to the information.
Worse, every year new bills are introduced in the General Assembly that, taken en masse, would seriously compromise the ideal of open government that is a cornerstone of our republic.
“Every year we see it, whether it’s another attempt to erode access to 911 tapes, or to protect conversation between public sector lawyers and their clients about stuff that neither should be able to hide,” said John Bussian, the chief lobbyist for the North Carolina Press Association.
The Republican leadership in the General Assembly is supporting the constitutional amendment. Rep. Stephen LaRoque, a Kinston representative, is a co-sponsor of the House bill.
“We need to do this so that open government truly is a right rather than a privilege,” LaRoque told The Raleigh News and Observer.
The primary opponents of the bill are lobbyists for local governments, school boards and sheriff departments. They oppose a provision that would require a two-thirds majority for any exceptions to the open records and meetings law. However, we believe that any necessary national security or other important exception would easily garner enough support to garner a super majority. And in fact, we think it’s critical that any exception that blocks access to open records be able to win the support of two-thirds of members of the General Assembly.
The timing of this debate couldn’t be better. This week, March 13-19, is Sunshine Week. A coalition of groups from around the country is encouraging government at all levels to maintain openness. This amendment would add a new gravitas to the sanctity of open government in North Carolina, and we hope it shows up on the ballot for a vote of the people.