Our Opinion: Second chances for sunshine on Wilson, Middlesex boards

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As eastern North Carolinians thawing out from this week’s cold snap can attest, the warm glow of sunlight is welcome even when it arrives later than expected.

Officials in Wilson and Middlesex passed on the opportunity to show their support for open government during Sunshine Week, which ends on Sunday, but both boards can still brighten the forecast for their constituents. The benefits of transparency have no expiration date.

The Times asked the Wilson City Council and Wilson County Board of Commissioners to adopt proclamations pledging support for public access to government meetings and records this week, and we partnered with The Spring Hope Enterprise to make the same request in Middlesex.

Written by the American Society of News Editors for use throughout the United States, the proclamation is one part aspirational and one part practical. The latter portion includes commitments to conduct a 90-day review of open government policies, to adopt a thrifty fee schedule for public records and to post draft budgets, contracts and frequently requested records online to maximize access.

Wilson councilmen received a draft of the proclamation on Wednesday and did not discuss or vote on it during their Thursday meeting. It was short notice to be sure, but councilmen can and do amend their agenda on the fly — on Jan. 19, the panel voted 5-2 to give its members a 37 percent pay raise in a surprise motion.

Wilson usually earns high marks when it comes to openness, so we hope we’ll be able to report on the proclamation’s passage following the council’s April 6 meeting.

County commissioners did not have the document before their March 6 meeting, so they will have the chance to support public accountability at their next scheduled session on April 3.

In Middlesex, board members discussed the proclamation Monday night but declined to hold a vote. Mayor Lu Harvey Lewis said commissioners would have to change some town ordinances in order to satisfy the proclamation’s commitment to best practices for public access to meetings and records.

“The first part of it I am OK with, but the second part is like a demand,” Commissioner Harold Meacombs said, according to The Spring Hope Enterprise. “If Section Two weren’t there, I would say OK.”

Stripping out all the action items isn’t in line with the proclamation’s spirit, but surely the board realizes it’s free to make revisions before stamping the document with the town seal.

It’s encouraging, at least, that the mayor and commissioners gave the issue some thought. Meacombs’ support for the broad principles of transparency in the proclamation’s preamble could be a building block that leads to reform.

We grade Middlesex on a generous curve here, as open government issues have stoked controversy since commissioners voted in 2013 to add a staff-time surcharge for public records requests that take more than a half-hour to fulfill. The Times has criticized that practice loud and long.

Perhaps town commissioners would be willing to revisit their problematic policy and hit the reset button. Middlesex could improve its reputation by trading a poor record on public access for the mantle of proud advocate for the people’s right to know.