04/01/08 — Shine the light: Secrecy of any kind is bad news for taxpayers

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Shine the light: Secrecy of any kind is bad news for taxpayers

You might wonder why anyone really cares if Gov. Mike Easley deleted e-mails. With so many other reasons to be concerned about ethics in North Carolina’s legislature and government, it might seem like a tempest in an already boiling teapot. Some people might even say that this is just another example of the news media whining about not getting information.

But even though this particular transgression is connected to something that smells — the failed reforms of the mental health system — there are more than a few reasons to be concerned that yet another public official has found a way to dodge the spirit and probably the letter of the open records laws.

Public access to information is not just a convenience for the news media — although newspapers throughout the state do need to be able to get their hands on records if they are really going to be watchdogs of the public’s money and interest.

The reason regular people should be concerned when they hear that a governor has issued a decree that e-mails should be erased — and no records kept — is that it gives public officials a way to do business out of the public’s line of sight.

And you know what can happen when no one is watching what public officials are doing with money, resources and influence — just look back over the past couple of years in North Carolina.

This state has some of the weakest open records laws in the nation. It is not too difficult to come up with some legitimate legal defense for not turning over all the information to the media or to anyone else who is looking for the truth behind a state decision.

Citizens should be part of the calls to strengthen open records laws in this state — especially if they want to see better performance and accountability out of the people who serve them in the state legislature and beyond.

Easley’s e-mail fiasco is just one of many examples of what can happen when we allow public officials the chance to find a loophole or to justify hiding information under the guise of doing what’s right.

Anyone who serves the public should operate in the open — unless there is a truly compelling reason to do otherwise — and those really are few and far between.

Keeping information flowing and eyes on those who serve is not only a good way to make sure the job gets done right. It is a great way to protect taxpayers’ hard-earned money, too.

Published in Editorials on April 1, 2008 1:22 PM