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RALEIGH—State Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, on Thursday filed a bill that would make it a misdemeanor—punishable with jail time—to violate the state’s open meetings and public records laws.
Goolsby and Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, filed Senate Bill 125 Thursday in the N.C. Senate.
Senate Bill 125 amends the state’s open meetings law and public records law to include a provision that would make it a misdemeanor to deny someone a public record or improperly hold or close an open meeting. A violation of either would be a Class 3 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 20 days in jail.
Prior to filing the bill, Goolsby said government employees and bureaucrats can “break the law with impunity” when it comes to the state’s open meetings and public records laws.
He introduced similar legislation last year, but the bill died in committee. Goolsby has the support of fellow Sens. Kathy Harington, R-Gastonia, Wesley Meredith, R-Fayetteville, and E.S. “Buck” Newton, R-Wilson–all of whom have signed on as co-sponsors. What he doesn’t expect, however, is the full support of government employees or the government community as a whole.
“Currently, you can violate the law with impunity. It’s just ridiculous. We have a right to know what’s being done with our money,” Goolsby said.
The state’s open meetings law requires boards that “exist solely to conduct the people’s business,” do so openly—including hearings, deliberations and actions.
But, Goolsby explained, there’s nothing in the law as it’s written that allows for criminal punishment if someone violates the open meetings law.
For example, if someone violates one of the law’s nine exemptions that allow for a board to retreat to closed session—attorney-client privilege, pending real estate transactions and protected personnel provisions the most often used exemptions—the law provides no criminal penalty for such.
The provision would also apply to the state’s public records law, which outlines and defines what records are public in North Carolina—everything from public salaries, to autopsy reports to court documents—whether in electronic, audio, video or paper form.
“The intent of the law is not to jail politicians and bureaucrats. It is meant to fire a shot across the bow of potential offenders. Upon its implementation, the law will change the default position on government meetings and records making them ‘open,’ rather than ‘closed.’ Only an extremely dim-witted bureaucrat or politician will refuse to give out a government record or close a meeting, unless they are told to do so by their lawyer,” Goolsby said.
Mike Tadych, a Raleigh-based media law attorney who represents the North Carolina Press Association, weighed in on Goolsby’s proposal.
“While I certainly don’t agree that the current law has no teeth or gums, the notion of personal, criminal liability on the part of the misbehaving public officials is interesting,” Tadych said.
Click here to read a previous story on the matter, including more on what someone could do if they were denied a record or improperly removed from a meeting.
Caroline Curran is the managing editor of Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter at @cgcurran.