05/15/07 — Keep light on: Open records allow public to keep eyes on politicians:

View Archive

Keep light on: Open records allow public to keep eyes on politicians:

If you ever wondered if there is a need to keep public records open to the media and anyone else who wants to take a gander, the past couple of years in North Carolina’s political history ought to convince you.

The recent ethics troubles of former Speaker of the House Jim Black as well as questions that have plagued other members of his “posse” are reason enough to make sure that someone is keeping an eye on what is going on, not only in Raleigh, but in Wayne County, too.

Contrary to what some local and state public officials think, their dealings behind closed doors are not in the best interest of the citizens of this community. And the agreements they make and the money they spend — for employees, contracts and other purchases — are the business of every taxpayer in this state. After all, it is our money.

The same is true for incidental meetings and secret “negotiations” of sorts that can sometimes occur between public officials. They aren’t formal gatherings, but decisions are made nonetheless. And they are wrong — and violations of the spirit of the open records and Sunshine laws. The public’s business should be decided before the public, not prearranged beforehand so all that is necessary is a token vote at the regular meeting.

Allowing some records to be closed, other than for very specific reasons such as when a public entity is trying to negotiate a contract, is opening the floodgates for public officials to find excuses to keep other information secret.

And that is not in anyone’s best interest.

The public has a right to know what it is spending and on what. Taxpayers should be able to question the salaries and performance of anyone who earns a living from public money — and refuse to increase salaries if there is no merit demonstrated.

All of those rights are contingent upon knowing what is really going on when it comes to money, budgets and records.

There will be more pushes for more open records changes over the next few years. The idea is to keep as much out in the open as possible. When you wonder why the battle is so important, think about what would have happened if no one had been watching North Carolina politics this year.

Published in Editorials on May 15, 2007 1:23 PM