Laws and policies make NC more secret, open-government advocates say. …

The United States is a representative democracy, which means citizens elect people to run their government. How do voters judge how well those elected do the job? They need information to make informed decisions come Election Day.

But as Democracy Day approaches, examples of officials making it harder for their constituents to know what they are doing continue to pile up in North Carolina.

In recent years, state lawmakers passed laws that made campaign finance investigations secret, blocked public access to data tracking police misconduct statewide, and prevented the release of pollution complaints against agricultural operations. They made gun permits secret. Complaints against judges too.

Jailhouse camera video released through a public records request helped expose a 2011 death by Taser in the Harnett County jail (the county paid a $350,000 settlement). But a law passed in 2016 requires a judge’s approval for the release of law enforcement video, which translates into legal expenses many can’t afford.

And the public’s access to the past has been reduced. State Sen. Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore in 2021 fashioned a new policy allowing they and their colleagues to destroy emails older than three years, WRAL reported. That’s a short window for the public when you consider that it can take years for the legislative impacts to become known.

“Unfortunately, we’re moving in the direction of less transparency,” said Amanda Martin, the supervising attorney with Duke University’s First Amendment Clinic. “Legislators are being willing to put more and more things out of the public view.”

This session, Senate lawmakers are backing a nonprofit, NCInnovation, to jumpstart companies spun off from academic research, with a $1.4 billion budget appropriation, Martin noted. The House and Gov. Roy Cooper have each offered $50 million in their budget proposals.

But its operations and records would be explicitly exempt from the state’s open meetings and public records laws.

Refusing records requests

The growing lack of government transparency doesn’t rest solely with lawmakers, said Martin and others who push for open government. They see more cases of state and local officials resisting public records requests.

The officials take an unreasonable amount of time to fill them, charge high gathering fees that most people can’t or shouldn’t have to pay or cite suspect reasons for denying the records.

In January 2021, WTVD caught wind of an audit involving UNC-Chapel Hill’s police chief and requested it. Internal audits are public records. The university claimed in its response that it had “no existing or responsive” public records. UNC also said the state personnel law prevented it from confirming the “existence or non existence of audits about particular employees.”

In fact, UNC’s internal auditor had investigated and issued two reports about improper conduct within the department. The chief resigned shortly after, but denied any wrongdoing. The findings included the wrongful use of a criminal information database, wasted money on a leased vehicle and golf cart, and misuse of a department vehicle to attend two out-of-town football games.

The News & Observer exposed the findings by obtaining the audits through two other state agencies.

A recent court case is helping the press and public push back on secrecy, said Brooks Fuller, director of the NC Open Government Coalition and the Sunshine Center at Elon University. A judge ordered Columbus County to pay $32,000 in legal fees after finding that the sheriff had failed to comply with the public records law in withholding crime reports.

In that case, two Columbus County newspapers, The News-Reporter and Tabor-Loris Tribune, and TV news stations WWAY and WECT joined in the legal battle.

The North Carolina Press Association, in a blog post by attorney Beth Soja, linked to the judge’s decisions to provide “excellent cautionary tales” for government officials who are not responding promptly to records requests.

If you face roadblocks obtaining information you think should be public from state government, we’d like to hear about it. Please fill out the form below.