Sunshine Week to celebrate government transparency
Posted March 13, 2016 4:00 a.m. EDT
Updated March 13, 2016 10:29 a.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Government functions best when it operates in the open.
That belief, with a few exceptions, is woven throughout the fabric of North Carolina law, and over the next few days, media organizations and open-government advocates across the country will celebrate this central tenet during Sunshine Week, March 13-19.
Without open government, much of the daily coverage from WRAL News and other North Carolina news outlets – from crime reporting to recaps of city council action and even some weather forecasting – wouldn't be possible.
But among the many state statutes intended to keep officials accountable to the public they serve, those governing public records and open meetings stand out. The capabilities these laws grant not just to journalists, but to everybody, are critical to diving deeper into the activities of local, county and state governments – and evaluating whether they're truly serving the public.
Big stories often fueled by open records
About a year after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a massive report detailing academic fraud and preferential treatment toward athletes, college officials issued their first response to what they said was the largest public records request UNC had ever received.
About 214,000 pages of email correspondence, material fraud investigators used to create the so-called Wainstein report, were posted online per a records request from The News & Observer and The Daily Tar Heel.
The university had spent millions to redact the records for privacy, a cost state agencies must bear by law, but none of the information contained in those pages was searchable by the public.
The resulting application, with the addition of two more UNC document dumps since then, now allows the public to access 680,000 pages of documents related to the Wainstein report.
But records releases that power our stories aren't always so massive.
A calendar entry in a relatively routine request tipped @NCCapitol reporter Mark Binker off to a private dinner meeting between Gov. Pat McCrory, some of his top officials and Duke Energy brass at the Executive Mansion. Officials wouldn't provide specifics about what was discussed at the meeting, which took place amid ongoing litigation against the utility over coal ash pollution.
The news riled environmental groups, who said the lack of transparency raised questions about how well the McCrory administration was protecting the public given Duke's influence. But the Governor's Office said McCrory and his team often meet with business leaders, and they maintained the discussion was a normal part of the job.
While gatherings like these aren't governed by the state's open meetings law, governing bodies such as city councils or boards of county commissioners are obligated, with very few exceptions, to conduct the public's business in the public.
That's why it was notable when the UNC Board of Governors, which oversees the administration of the 17-campus UNC system, voted behind closed doors to increase the salaries of several university chancellors.
For days, the public wasn't able to see how many chancellors saw their pay increased, or by how much.
Open-government lawyers called that action a clear violation of the state's open meetings law, and the incident prompted tough questions from state lawmakers as well as a commitment from the board to be more transparent in the future.
Public records can also come in the form of data. Last month, WRAL News education reporter Kelly Hinchcliffe used public data to show that more than 300 public schools across the state failed to test enough students last year, causing North Carolina to receive a warning letter from the U.S. Department of Education.
It wasn't the first time North Carolina failed to test enough students. In the past 12 years, the state has tested the required amount of students only once – more than a decade ago, in 2004, according to data obtained by WRAL News.
Fighting for transparency
In some cases, WRAL News has taken the battle for government transparency to court.
Last fall, the station joined with other news organizations and advocacy groups in a lawsuit against the McCrory administration for a pattern of delays that left reporters across the state waiting for records for more than a year in some cases [FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this piece is involved in ongoing mediation related to this lawsuit].
Although the suit is still working its way through North Carolina courts, the McCrory administration maintains it has complied with state records law and is committed to transparency.
The station has also fought to ensure its right to access.
When a North Carolina State Bar panel heard charges of ethical violations against Christine Mumma, an attorney who has successfully worked to free wrongly accused as part of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, the disciplinary panel initially refused to allow WRAL News cameras in the hearing.
The station's parent company sued, maintaining the hearing was subject to state open meetings laws and accessible for live coverage.
The State Bar ultimately relented, allowing WRAL News reporters to detail the process the panel used to determine Mumma had committed only a minor ethical violation, earning a written admonition.