Thursday, October 6, 2022

Sunshine week starts today, how open government affects everyone

WILMINGTON — Transparency in the government is not just one of the foundations of democracy in the United States, it is also the law. From the federal level of government down to the smallest municipalities, there are laws in place to ensure the free access to public records and information.

Today is the start to Sunshine Week, a week dedicated to highlighting and preserving open government and the freedom of information,  from the right to attend public meetings to having access to government documents including emails sent by most government employees.

At the federal level, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides guidelines for what information the federal government must provide when requested; these rights are not only granted to the media but to the general public as well.

In North Carolina, state statutes provide requirements for open government at both a state, and local level.

City of Wilmington City Councilman Paul Lawler said, “Openness is critical for our form of government. Voters must be able to check in and find out what is going on when they choose to do so, not when government says it’s OK. It’s how voters can determine whether the elected are considering good decisions. I post on my campaign website and (my) Facebook page to let folks know my thinking on issues before the city as my individual effort at openness.”

According to state law, all government meetings, and any meeting conducting the business of the people must be open to the public, but there are always exceptions.

“Whereas the public bodies that administer the legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, and advisory functions of North Carolina and its political subdivisions exist solely to conduct the people’s business, it is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly,” according to the law.

It’s not just elected officials who are held accountable by the public, police and other emergency workers are also subject to open government laws, although there are several more restrictions as to what is considered public record.

According to Wilmington Police Department Spokeswoman Jennifer Dandron, “Law Enforcement Officers wield a lot of authority in a community, from enforcing laws, to stripping away individual freedoms and even using deadly force when necessary. Being transparent allows the public to hold us accountable and responsible for the way we use that authority.”

Several local governments have made accessing public information easier thanks to technology. Most meeting agendas as well as past meeting minutes can be accessed online.

In the Town of Carolina Beach, City of Wilmington, and New Hanover County, public access computer terminals are available that allow any member of the media, as well as the public to access emails sent by government employees.

Typically the emails that are readily available are from both department heads as well as elected officials, but each locality is different.

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