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Our Opinion: Open government guarantee belongs in NC Constitution

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Along with public health, the COVID-19 pandemic is testing government transparency in North Carolina. 

State officials have withheld vital information about coronavirus outbreaks that would help us better protect our families. While the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reversed course on identifying nursing homes with active outbreaks, the agency’s still stonewalling when it comes to naming food processing plants where the virus crops up. 

COVID-19 also poses logistical challenges to open government. Gov. Roy Cooper’s restrictions on mass gatherings have replaced in-person city council and county commissioners’ meetings with videoconferences. Some concerned citizens who wish to monitor the proceedings may not have internet access or might need help using virtual meeting platforms like Zoom. 

Boards and councils are making good-faith efforts to keep you informed, but some face the same technical hurdles as their constituents. Bladenboro town commissioners closed a recent meeting to the public and offered a livestream on YouTube — but the connection failed and residents were left in the dark as their representatives reviewed a proposed budget, according to the Bladen Journal. 

To ensure that accountability doesn’t take a backseat during emergencies, and to strengthen North Carolinians’ citizen oversight of their government, state lawmakers have filed legislation to place the Sunshine Amendment on your ballot this November. 

“Sunshine” is shorthand for openness and transparency, a reference to conducting the people’s business in daylight rather than under cover of darkness. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote that “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

The measure would enshrine your right to know in the state constitution. If enacted, it will also protect your access to public records and meetings by requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote in the General Assembly before any open government statute can be repealed or weakened.

Reps. Mitchell Setzer, R-Catawba, and Stephen Ross, R-Alamance, introduced the legislation as House Bill 1111 earlier this month. As of this writing, five Republicans and one Democrat have signed on as cosponsors. The bill must clear procedural hurdles in the rules committee and the state and local government panel in order to reach a floor vote. 

The Sunshine Amendment is modeled after similar legislation in Florida and California. Amendments to those states’ constitutions were widely popular, gaining approval from roughly eight in 10 voters. 

“It’s a good, neutral start to a long-range effort to improve open government law in North Carolina,” media lawyer and lobbyist John Bussian told the Carolina Journal. “It’s about everybody.”

The North Carolina Press Association and its members — including this newspaper — are calling on the General Assembly to pass HB 1111 and give you an opportunity to vote on the Sunshine Amendment. 

“At a time when government transparency and media coverage of government operations have become more important than ever, it is especially appropriate for North Carolinians to voice their approval of the right to know through the proposed Sunshine Amendment,” said Phil Lucey, the NCPA’s executive director. 

While newspapers request reams of records, the state sunshine law makes them our collective public property. There’s no special right of access for journalists. You have the same ability to scrutinize city council members’ expense reports and peruse county commissioners’ emails as we do. Part of our job is to educate readers on their rights and how to exercise them effectively. 

Supporting open government isn’t antigovernment. Mayors, council members and commissioners answer the call to serve their communities and by far, the vast majority are devoted public servants worthy of respect and admiration. We don’t pore over local budgets with the assumption that someone’s cooking the books; we just want to help constituents understand how their tax money is being spent. There’s nothing negative about taking an active role in local governance. 

There’s also no partisan advantage in strengthening public access to government records and meetings. Sunshine laws apply to boards, offices and agencies equally regardless of officials’ political affiliation. There’s no reason HB 1111 shouldn’t enjoy full support from the House Democratic Caucus as well as the House Republican Caucus. 

Constitutional amendments offer a rare chance for direct democracy in North Carolina. In passing HB 1111, lawmakers will clear space for sunshine on your ballot, then give you the last word. You deserve the opportunity to decide the issue on Election Day.

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