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Editor’s note: Port City Daily is participating in this year’s Sunshine Week (March 10-16) with in-depth stories, government record audits and tips of the trade for making public records requests. Look for stories and information throughout the week.
Move over Florida, there’s a new Sunshine State.
With legislation pending in the General Assembly that strengthens the public records law, open meetings law and even amends the North Carolina Constitution to make North Carolina a transparent and open state, many elected officials, attorneys and government transparency advocates are proclaiming the Tar Heel State as the next Sunshine State.
State Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican and attorney, has introduced three bills in the State Senate that would strengthen the state’s public records and open meetings laws. Senate Bill 125—introduced last month and currently in committee—would make violating the public records law or open meetings law a Class 3 misdemeanor punishable by up to 120 days in jail.
Just this week—recognized nationwide as Sunshine Week with a focus on the First Amendment, public records and freedom of information—Goolsby introduced two additional bills geared toward government openness.
Senate Bill 331 would amend the North Carolina Constitution to address access to public records and meetings.
Titled the “Sunshine Amendment” to the constitution, the amendment would write into the constitution the public’s right to “inspect or copy any public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body,” as well as a provision that all public bodies’ meetings be “open and noticed to the public.”
If Goolsby’s “Sunshine Amendment” were to pass the General Assembly with a two-thirds majority, it would appear on the November 2014 ballot.
The second bill filed Thursday, the Government Transparency Act, would amend the state’s public records law as it relates to government employees.
The bill would add a provision to make public “a general description of the reasons for each promotion, demotion, transfer, separation, or other change in position classification with that department, agency, institution, commission or bureau” as well as “the performance of the employee, to the extent that the department, agency, institution, commission or bureau has the performance records in its possession.”
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation recently ranked states in terms of government openness. They used six different criteria, including completeness, timeliness, ease of electronic access, machine readability, use of commonly owned standards and permanence.
North Carolina was one of nine states to receive an “A” ranking. Neighboring South Carolina received a “C,” while Virginia scored a “B.” Florida, long known for its openness and transparency, received a “C.”
“I just saw where North Carolina, at least at the legislative level, is ranked as the top state. We’re tied with several other states as the top state for openness as far as the legislative process goes, so I’m proud of that being in the General Assembly. And we do, we work really hard,” Goolsby said.
“We have all of our meetings open. I actually have all of my meetings broadcast. We put all of our information online so you can go to our committees and download everything we talk about—all the exhibits and things that we deal with. I’m proud of that. I do think though, that as we move forward in this state, we’re really going to have to concentrate on making electronic records more available—scanning, PDFing—all the things that we can in making it totally available to people.
“I think we can do that and we can do that cost-effectively. I think we’re going to have a legislative study commission that’s going to help us work through all those questions. They are important and need to be handled correctly,” Goolsby said.
Mike Tadych, a Raleigh-based First Amendment and media law attorney who represents the North Carolina Press Association, said the state of openness in North Carolina is “generally good, but uncertain with the recent legislative and executive shift.”
“Open government is not a partisan issue. However, it’s possible that the current administration and General Assembly may tweak our public records and open meetings laws and their exceptions. For example, there is a bill pending that would criminalize violations of the public records law as a means to give additional teeth to those challenging its violation.
“Similarly, there is discussion of providing the public greater access to the employment records of government employees as is the case in several other states. Those types of changes have not gained traction in past administrations,” Tadych said.
Concealed carry confidentiality
While at least three bills pending in the General Assembly move toward transparency, at least one bill introduced in the state Senate looks to privatize public records.
Senate Bill 28, sponsored by Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson,—a co-sponsor on Goolsby’s Senate Bill 125 to criminalize public records and open meetings violations—would privatize pistol permit holders’ and concealed carry permit holders’ information.
Senate Bill 28, “an act to provide for the confidentiality of information regarding concealed handgun permits and pistol purchase permits” would make concealed carry permit and pistol permit holder information—currently public record in North Carolina—confidential.
The measure has the support of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association.
Apodaca did not return calls seeking comment about his support of either Senate Bill 125 or Senate Bill 28.
Goolsby said he was “not totally excited” about that measure.
“There are some senators and some representatives up here who really think that’s a problem. I don’t know that it’s a problem—people knowing that you are armed. I think that people tend to stay away from you if they know that you are armed. I don’t know how that’s going to increase problems for people. I’m still waiting to hear an answer to that question,” Goolsby said.
Tadych said he didn’t see the information as public record as an infringement on Second Amendment rights.
“North Carolinians have enjoyed access to concealed carry/pistol information for a very long time and, to my knowledge, without any infringement on Second Amendment rights. Proposed restriction to access this information via sheriffs refusing access or legislative action presents several concerns. At its base, access to concealed carry information provides a means for North Carolinians to hold their government accountable.
“That is, is the permitting process and analysis being handled properly? Should a permit have been issued? Were there warning signs that were ignored in issuing permits? Accountability is a hallmark of open government. In addition, I’m not aware of any empirical evidence, which confirms recent suggestions that access to this sort of information bares permit owners to greater risk of burglary or targeting of unlawful behavior in order for criminals to obtain their weapons. To the contrary, it is my understanding that possessing a concealed carry permit alone – even without actual gun ownership or possession – can deter unlawful behavior where criminals may intentional avoid more risky targets,” Tadych said.
Caroline Curran is the managing editor of Port City Daily and longtime participant of Sunshine Week. Reach her at (910) 772-6636 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter at @cgcurran.