Saturday, July 20, 2024

Sunshine week: Government transparency, open meetings, and public records

This week is Sunshine Week, a week dedicated to government transparency and openness (Port City Daily/File)
This week is Sunshine Week, a week dedicated to government transparency and openness. (Port City Daily/File)

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 free access to public records and information.

Yesterday was 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.

“Public records are documentary materials that are either made or received by government agencies in North Carolina in carrying on public business. Public records include documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristic,” according to state laws.

It’s not just physical records that help shape a transparent government. 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.

When it comes to meeting in private there are a few times where elected officials do have the ability to keep the public out — but there are generally no laws saying the must meet in private.

In general, closed sessions will take place when discussing the hiring/firing of employees, real estate transactions, or other matters that are protected under attorney-client privilege.

It covers everyone

In Carolina Beach, accessing emails from city staff is as easy as sitting down at a computer (Port City Daily/Courtesy Town of Carolina Beach)
In Carolina Beach, accessing emails from city staff is as easy as sitting down at a computer. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Town of Carolina Beach)

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 taking 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 (Wilmington’s terminal is slightly less accessible; it is located in the basement of the City Manager’s office and typically requires an apointment to use).

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

Government transparency is paramount to journalism but these laws are not just reserved for the press, any citizen can request public documents through a public records request or through the email terminals.


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