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Time to bask in the glow of being in the know: It’s Sunshine Week, a celebration of freedom of information held nationally since 2005.
It’s the one week each year when advocates go all out in a campaign to open up all levels of government. In North Carolina, veterans of the push for more public access to official records and meetings are using the occasion to advance an offensive that seems to be gaining ground.
Consider the perspective of John Bussian, a lawyer for the North Carolina Press Association, who’s usually skeptical of making major leaps forward. In his years of arguing for more public access, he’s witnessed a series of small gains and setbacks.
Things suddenly seem different now, Bussian suggests in his monthly column in the latest edition of the NCPA’s monthly newsletter (PDF). The state “is poised to move itself into the vanguard of open government states,” Bussian predicts. “I’m betting a new dawn is at hand.”
Of course, it’s too soon to know if new open-government initiatives in the N.C. General Assembly will succeed. But they’re catching much buzz during Sunshine Week and sparking a new level of debate. Here’s a roundup of some of the latest developments:
• The governor’s endorsement: Gov. Bev Perdue declared March 13 through 19 the state’s official Sunshine Week, asserting in her statement that North Carolina is committed “to safeguarding democracy through government transparency and accountability” and “ensuring citizens know and understand their right to access government documents, information and meetings.”
• New Sunshine laws: The top objective in the openness agenda is a proposed “Sunshine Amendment” to the state constitution that would enshrine access to government information as a right for the state’s citizens. The proposed legislation would put the matter to a statewide referendum in 2012.
Another high priority for the sunshine set is a proposed Government Transparency Act. The legislation would expand access to some public personnel records. It would also mandate the recovery of attorney’s fees for news outlets that successfully sue local governments to make them comply with state public meetings law.
• Public opinion backs public access: A new poll of North Carolina residents by Elon University suggests strong public support for greater openness. In the poll conducted late last month, 83 percent of respondents favored passing an open-government amendment to the state constitution. More than half said they’d attempted to obtain public records at some point, and 73 percent said they believe that citizen access to government documents and meetings has an impact on government operations.
• Sunshine gaining steam: If openness backers like Bussian are correct and the state really is on the verge of a new era of sunshine, who can take the credit for this turn toward transparency? The North Carolina Press Association has been a tireless agitator for expanding the reach of openness laws for many years. More recently, the Elon University-based North Carolina Open Government Coalition, which was founded in 2004, has brought academics and citizen activists into the campaign.
The recent sea change in the General Assembly also appears to have breathed new life into the state’s sunshine movement. The new Republican majority leaders, as noted in a recent Associated Press article, have committed to advancing legislation like the Sunshine Act.
“Is this the beginning of the golden age of government transparency in North Carolina?” Bussian asked in his recent column. His answer: “It is if the General Assembly understands the importance of restoring the public’s confidence in state and local government.”