You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who’d say there hasn’t been any shady dealings in North Carolina politics. It can sometimes feel like backroom deals and secret handshakes are the lay of the land.
But the truth is, there are laws in place to ensure every citizen has access to the democratic process. Sunshine or Freedom of Information laws guarantee that public business be held in public. This means any time elected officials or government employees meet or create documents, you have a right to see the results.
Eleven years ago, I was working for a newspaper in Florida when the state legislature tried to limit the public’s access to records. The news industry fought back and defeated the measures. At the same time, Sunshine Week was born. Sunshine Week is an annual celebration of open records law.
Without open records, the news wouldn’t happen. Politicians would operate in a vacuum. Taxpayers and voters wouldn’t have the knowledge they need to make decisions about who represents them and what should happen in state policy.
As a writer, I rely on the fact government is transparent. This allows me to deliver readers objective information free from spin. But open records and meetings aren’t just important to reporters; every single person needs government to be accessible.
What if you heard there was a new retail development going up a block from your house? If government was closed, you’d have to wait to see what is built there and whether the traffic makes it completely impossible to leave your neighborhood.
But with open meetings, you could attend every step of the planning process and give your feedback about traffic light placement, design, and tenants. You could read the plans at the town planning department and you could mobilize your neighbors against developments that threaten your local environment or children’s safety.
You have the right to read the emails of your elected officials, transcripts of any public meeting, and any written correspondence that affects state government. Sometimes privacy or safety concerns can cause parts to need to be redacted, but the broader documents should be available to you.
In practice this can be more difficult. Governments sometimes try to slow down the record request process, or charge large amounts of money for record requests or photocopying. This is where nonprofits such as the Sunshine Center come in. They have attorneys who can help news organizations and private citizens access the information they deserve. It can sometimes take a lot of arm twisting — and even lawsuits — but ultimately state, local, and national government can be made to comply.
This year for Sunshine Week, why not research the records policies in your town or county? Encourage your local officials to pass a resolution ensuring freedom of information for all citizens, entities, and news organizations. This sample resolution has some good language, including:
WHEREAS, an open and accessible government is vital to establishing and maintaining the people’s trust and confidence in their government and in the government’s ability to effectively serve its citizens.
Have you ever filed a freedom of information request or availed yourself of open records? Let us know in comments.