Our Opinion: Wilson, Wilson County boards should make commitments to open government

Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing to The Wilson Times.

Most elected officials will extol the benefits of open government — after all, transparency is a bipartisan goal, and secrecy doesn’t poll well with the voters. But how many will vote to hold themselves accountable to the public they serve?

We hope the answer is all of them, and in that spirit, the Times has asked the Wilson City Council and Wilson County Board of Commissioners to pass proclamations in honor of Sunshine Week, a nationwide campaign promoting public access to government meetings and records.

We’ve also joined with The Spring Hope Enterprise in asking the Middlesex Board of Commissioners, which has weathered past public records controversies, to adopt the proclamation and usher in a new era of cooperation between town officials, the public and the press.

Led by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sunshine Week is an annual celebration of open government timed to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, who authored the First Amendment. It recognizes the government’s responsibility to conduct its business in the sunlight and the media’s role as a watchdog acting in the public’s interest.

The Wilson Times provided council members and county commissioners with a draft of the proclamation on Wednesday. While that’s admittedly short notice for the city council’s Thursday meeting, it’s not unusual for councilmen to consider last-minute additions to the agenda. If they believe open government is an important issue, we’re sure they’ll see fit to bring it up.

Written by the ASNE, the model proclamation asks the city and county of Wilson and the town of Middlesex to make the following pledges:

• Within 90 days of adoption, the city, county and town managers will make recommendations to their respective boards on actions that can be taken to strengthen open government within the next year.

• Boards will provide proper notice of all public meetings and accept requests for public records by phone, mail, online and in person.

• A schedule of charges for public records that does not exceed actual cost will be established, and all agencies will respond to records requests within five business days.

• All agencies will maintain a log of public records requests to track compliance and fulfillment speed.

• All agencies will post digital and physical copies of records subject to repeated requests, contracts which exceed $5,000 and copies of all budget requests and draft budgets within 72 hours of formal consideration.

These common-sense steps would demonstrate a true commitment to government transparency, and we call on the city council, county commissioners and Middlesex town board to show their support at the earliest opportunity.

Open government policies aren’t about placating the media — reporters have the same access rights as any other member of the public, no more and no less. We make this request of our elected officials on behalf of their constituents.

Let the sun shine brightly in the people’s boardrooms.