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Our Opinion: Shutting the public out of government should be a crime

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A state panel’s egregious violation of North Carolina’s open meetings law could lead legislators to enact criminal penalties for government officials who slam the door on the public they serve.

Sens. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, and Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, have introduced a bill that would make it a Class 3 misdemeanor to deny access to public records or government meetings.

This isn’t a revolutionary idea (other states, including Florida, already punish violators) or a new one (former Wilson Sen. Buck Newton co-sponsored a similar bill in 2013), but a dustup last month between a journalist and a shifty commission chairman shows it’s an idea whose time has come.

The N.C. Military Affairs Commission’s Feb. 7 meeting was marred by a shameful ruse. Chairman Bud Martin removed a presentation on an Elizabeth City-area wind farm from the panel’s agenda because he and Larry Hall, the state military and veterans’ affairs secretary, objected to the presence of a reporter from the Carolina Journal, a monthly newspaper published by the conservative John Locke Foundation.

When the reporter and others in attendance for the wind farm discussion had left, the Journal reported, Martin placed the item back on the agenda and proceeded with the presentation.

“Hall later told the reporter it would not be fair to other media to allow (Carolina Journal) to have a scoop, and he was not comfortable with CJ being the only media outlet to report what was discussed,” the paper reported.

First of all, government has no business involving itself in competition between media outlets. Secondly, it’s the commission’s own fault no other reporters attended, as it failed to advertise the meeting through the secretary of state’s office as North Carolina law requires.

Hall, the former Democratic leader in the N.C. House, may not be a Carolina Journal fan. But public boards don’t get to banish journalists because of their publishers’ ideology. Reporters have the same right of access to meetings and records as any other member of the public — no more and no less.

Senate Bill 77, which Cook and Sanderson filed on Feb. 14, would discourage willful violation of state sunshine laws by adding penalties for officials who now flout them with impunity. Attorney John Bussian, who serves as legislative and First Amendment counsel for the North Carolina Press Association, said Florida’s criminal statute increased open government compliance there.

SB 77 adds teeth to the public records and open meetings laws, and it does so judiciously. For a person with no more than three prior convictions, the maximum penalty for a Class 3 misdemeanor is a $200 fine. No misguided official is going to jail unless he or she makes a frequent habit of hiding public records or holding secret meetings.

Still, it sends an unmistakable message. A criminal penalty is likely to improve access to meetings and records without a single citation being issued.

“Open government is vital to an informed public,” Cook told the Carolina Journal. “Currently, officials will knowingly close the door on the public because they most likely will not be held accountable.”

Let’s change that by passing Senate Bill 77 and showing our government bodies it’s time to take their responsibility seriously.

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