04/28/05 — Information access: N.C. proposals endanger public’s right to know

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Information access: N.C. proposals endanger public’s right to know

Protecting freedom of information is a slippery slope.

Give a little here, make a concession there, and soon the public’s right to know becomes the public’s right to know most of the story, a few of the facts, the part government thinks they should know.

North Carolina’s proposals to shield some information about state employees seem on the surface a good move. After all, what could be the harm in protecting state workers from potentially abusive husbands or others who might want to harm them, and why should the public have a right to know about their 401(K) and flexible spending accounts?

So, when the North Carolina Press Association came out against the measure suggesting that it was just the sort of concession that leads to ever-shrinking open records, many readers probably thought, “Here we go again. The media being unreasonable.”

But, you see, it is all about that slippery slope.

What concerns the press, and should concern North Carolinians, is that the language of the bill is broad and could easily be altered to include information on other forms of compensation and bonuses.

Those, by the way, are funded by our tax dollars. And does anyone really want government officials to have the right to operate with tax-funded salary budgets without someone, namely you and us, watching over their shoulders?

There are ways to protect all of our rights, keep state workers safe and their privacy safeguarded — at least the parts that are not subsidized by the public.

The proposals to restrict access are a concern not because of the concessions they ask for now, but because of what might come in the future.

There is reason to be worried, and reason to ask the Legislature to think hard before starting to erode rules that were made not to permit the media blanket access to information, but to allow all of us to make sure we know where our money is going once we send a check to Raleigh.

Protecting access will not stop government mishandling of money, behind-the-scene deals and the other no-no’s that can lead to budget woes. It won’t guarantee that every politician will operate honestly.

But it just might help to remind those in our employ that we will all still be watching.

Published in Editorials on April 28, 2005 11:13 AM