Sunshine Week: The public always deserves as many answers as possible

I left the newspaper business and journalism in November but I didn’t suddenly drop one of my lifelong interests in the process. Yeah, I still believe in open government and transparency at every level — from the smallest town councils to the White House. It’s the least government and elected leaders can do: Operate where all can see what they’re doing and understand why. People need to know how and why money is spent or for what reason decisions are made. Even if people aren’t really interested anymore — and my hunch is the vast majority are not — that information should be in full, unfettered view at all times.

So why doesn’t it happen?

Politicians mostly and  bureaucracy are the main culprits. It’s an obfuscation fueled by hubris, egos, cowardice, litigation, stubbornness, contrariness and ignorance — yes, some people just don’t know any better. Those are all reasons I’ve seen over more than 30 years as a reporter and editor. Too often government officials feel they’re above the law, don’t understand the law or think the law doesn’t matter or apply to them. Many feel they know  far more than the law and simply ignore it. Even more often, government constructs legal roadblocks that themselves become self-serving laws that further government secrecy and deny taxpayers access to information they paid for to start with.

It’s as wrong as wrong gets, as my spouse is fond of saying about any number of things.

sunshine enemy

That’s just one reason why something known as “Sunshine Week” was created. The American Society of News Editors put Sunshine Week together to try and inform the public about the dangers of unnecessary government secrecy. Closer to home — at home in fact — the N.C. Open Government Coalition is housed right here on the Elon University campus and on Monday held a Sunshine Day event featuring an appearance by N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, who warned of the dangers of recent government rhetoric from Washington regarding press freedom and the bizarre accusation that some journalists are “enemies of the people.” He said the way to hold government accountable is for journalists to ‘persistently pursue the truth.”

Hear, hear.

Yes, there are legit reasons for government to keep some information to itself -– but those occasions should be rare. Open government is among those things that ensure freedom in our nation — something the public seems willing to forget about more often these days.

James MadisonSunshine Week – an expression created to symbolize shining light in the dark corners of government operations – is a relatively new concept, starting in 2005. But it’s based upon an old and very important idea. One hint of its origin is contained in when it’s actually celebrated -– mid-March to coincide with the birthday of James Madison on March 16, which is also National Freedom of Information Day. Madison, for those who skipped history – roughly 85 percent of the U.S. population if I read social media correctly – was a founding father of our nation, framer of the U.S. Constitution and the fourth president of the United States back when that office was occupied by people of actual substance. This James Madison guy, he was pretty smart. The greatest!

Anyway, Sunshine Week is a time when journalists promote the idea of open government and public records. Frankly, it’s never been more necessary and sadly more ignored by those it was meant to help. I’m most puzzled by those who say they find government untrustworthy yet do nothing to further the cause of openness and accountability.

We live in weird times.

And it’s also a time of coincidence. Just last week the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld a decision in Superior Court concerning the Burlington Times-News lawsuit with the Alamance-Burlington School System.. For the past few years the newspaper sought the release of documents related to the ouster of former ABSS superintendent Lillie Cox. The Times-News, where I was editor until November 2016, wanted records of board discussions leading up to the more than $200,000 payoff agreement to make Cox go away with the stipulation that neither side disparage the other.

Our quest concerned finding out exactly what happened and why. We thought it a reasonable request. After all, the public has a right to know why such expense was incurred and this action taken. It’s truly the only way for people to be able to judge whether these actions were justified or not. In an earlier ruling, a Superior Court judge ruled that ABSS had to release a small portion of the discussion in closed session but larger portions remained redacted – or marked over with heavy black ink. The Times-News wanted the entire transcript released. We felt the law allowed for this, especially now that so much time had elapsed.

The Court of Appeals disagreed. Judge Chris Dillon, concurred with the argument of the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education that its redaction of large sections of the minutes of closed session meetings leading up to the board’s vote May 30, 2014, to accept Cox’s apparently negotiated resignation were consistent with state open records and open meetings laws, and the exceptions for attorney-client privilege and personnel privacy .

But our contention then and now is that the law is wrong and needs to be corrected. The why of Cox’s departure doesn’t really matter anymore.All parties have moved on and under a new superintendent ABSS is operating much better than it was under Cox. But the how still has huge consequences because it leaves the door wide open for further similar actions by governing boards all over the state. Public decisions and spending of this sort deserves more than a shrug from government and elected officials.

I’ve known John Bussian for a long time. He’s gone to bat for open government and public records for years as an attorney for the Times-News and other news organizations. We agree the current law protects too many secrets and is far less public friendly than laws in most states. North Carolina is one of the least open government friendly states in America.

“The court’s job is to read the public records law broadly to promote access,” Bussian told the Times-News, “and this decision, if correct, shows why North Carolina’s public records access law keeps the public from knowing reasons for important government personnel decisions, unlike the law in more than 35 other states.”

I’m not sure where this case goes now. I’m no longer in the discussions or decisions. While I still think the law should be corrected, I also know the expense for both sides. One of my greatest fears for journalism’s future is that the cost to take government to court might become too large for such battles to be waged in the public’s interest. And Bussian is right, the Times-News did win a legal victory more than a year ago when the small dab of information was grudgingly released at the order of a judge.

“The Times-News forced the disclosure of information in closed session minutes wrongly withheld from the public in the first phase of this lawsuit. That by itself was a victory for the public’s right to know,” Bussian told Times-News reporter Isaac Groves. “Through the appeal, the Times-News tried to secure more information the public should know about what the school board discussed about Superintendent Cox’s sudden departure and the board’s payment to her of more than $200,000. The public still deserves to know that.”

I agree.

Of course, the most interesting thing I read in the newspaper account came from current school board chairman Steve Van Pelt, one of three then-board members who publicly challenged Cox’s departure and the agreement. Van Pelt and two other ABSS board members at that time felt so strongly about it they boycotted the meeting where the vote to accept the agreement was taken. He then contacted the newspaper and urged it to get to the bottom of the entire stinking mess. This didn’t occur off the record, it was a very public plea for journalists to thoroughly investigate how and why the Cox decision was reached. The newspaper did so.

So here’s what he had to say last week in a prepared statement issued to the media.

“Having the case fully resolved in favor of our board is affirming and most welcome news after two years of prolonged litigation. We can now focus all of our energy and resources into providing world-class educational opportunities for our students.”

I guess pleas concerning the public’s need to know only goes so far in local government.

Happy Sunshine Week everybody!

sunshine press

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