05/02/11 — Right to know: Proposed bill will make it easier for government to stay in the shadows

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Right to know: Proposed bill will make it easier for government to stay in the shadows

In a recent edition of The News-Argus, it was there -- in full color for everyone to see -- the proposed redistricting map for the city and an announcement of an upcoming public hearing to discuss it.

Why is it advertised so prominently in your hometown newspaper? Simple really -- government officials are required to make sure you see it, and this is the most efficient way to get it to you.

And you should want your government to be required to make it easy for you to see announcements concerning how they are spending your money or what changes they are making in laws that affect you.

It is a sort of check and balance -- a forced accountability -- and your chance to make your feelings known if you disagree.

There is a proposal before a committee of the North Carolina House of Representatives that should sound a warning bell for anyone who thinks that perhaps government officials would prefer to keep to themselves what they are up to rather than share it with the people they serve.

The idea is to move public notices out of newspapers of general circulation -- meaning the paper that reaches the most people in the designated area, which in this case is a county or city, and offers the most people the chance to see it. The notices would be moved to the Internet -- ostensibly, to save money.

If you read your newspaper carefully, you know, these are the public notices that appear in a newspaper's classified section, and sometimes in other places as well. The space is purchased by counties and cities to make sure that there is plenty of exposure of the information contained in those announcements to the people of the community. And right now, they are required by law.

Now, we admit, there is a financial interest for us in keeping public notices in newspapers. We make money off these announcements, as you probably already guessed.

But there is a deeper issue here -- and one that anyone who wants to see openness and fairness in government ought to be concerned about, a slippery slope if you will.

The measure in front of the legislature right now is being touted as part of the state's effort to save money. A group of legislators wants to put those notices on websites because there is a cost to put them in print. They contend online notices will get the same exposure and save money.

They are well-meaning, but wrong.

For those of you who don't know, government websites in general -- and Wayne County's in particular -- are pretty low in the readership department and often very difficult to navigate.

Not exactly an easy, open avenue for citizens looking for information, and not the best way to get the most eyes on notices about county business.

And then there is the fact that not everyone has access to the Internet or the means to really get to the notices that could cover anything from a zoning change to a new ordinance or other rule or regulation that could affect them.

The reason you should be concerned is actually pretty straightforward.

Do you want to make it easier for politicians to conduct their business outside of as many eyes of the public as possible? Do you want the people who are required to notify you to be the very same people distributing the information?

Do you think they will police themselves and make sure every dealing they have and every contract they sign is easy for you to track, read and respond to? Do you think there will never be a meeting or a hire just buried in a difficult-to-track notice on a website?

If you don't, then you can't be a fan of House Bill 472.

And, quite frankly, most of us have seen absolute proof over the years that given the choice of secret vs. public, most public officials prefer the former.

If you want more, not less, transparency in your government, you don't want your government to be able to determine where you go to get information, and you are also not too sure you can trust every politician and public body to be forthright when it comes to getting information out to the public in a timely manner, help us get the message out about House Bill 472.

Primary sponsors of the bill are Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville), Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam (R-Apex), Rep. Bill Owens (D-Elizabeth City) and Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Raleigh). Signed on as a co-sponsor is Rep. Marvin Lucas (D-Spring Lake).

The bill has been assigned to the House Committee on Government -- and a hearing tentatively scheduled for this week. Let chairman Rep. Larry Brown (R-Kernersville) know how you feel about this measure and that openness is important to you. E-mail him at Larry.Brown@ncleg.net or call him at 919-733-5607.

And while you are at it, call your local House members, too. You can find their addresses and phone numbers below. A companion bill has also been introduced in the Senate, so your state senators' contact information is included as well.

And while you are at it, make sure your county manager, interim city manager, county commissioners, city council members and the mayor know that you are watching what stand they take on this measure as well. Make sure they know that you want more openness, not less.

Please help us protect your right to know.

And in the end, we will all have a more open, more honest, and more responsive, government.

North Carolina House of Representatives
•District 21, Rep. Larry Bell, 300 N. Salisbury St., Room 606, Raleigh, N.C. 27603-5925. Raleigh office phone: (919) 733-5863, local (910) 592-1177. E-mail address: Larry.Bell@ncleg.net.
•District 11, Rep. Efton Sager, 300 N. Salisbury St. Room 416B, Raleigh, N.C. 27603-5925. Raleigh office phone: (919) 733-5755, local (919) 735-9458. E-mail address: Efton.Sager@ncleg.net.
•District 10, Rep. Stephen LaRoque, 16 W. Jones St. Room 635, Raleigh, N.C. 27601-1096. Raleigh office phone: (919) 715-3017, local (252) 523-7700.

North Carolina Senate
•District 12, Sen. David Rouzer, 300 N. Salisbury St., Room 520, Raleigh, N.C. 27603-5925. Raleigh office phone: (919) 733-5748, local (919) 701-0037. E-mail address: David.Rouzer@ncleg.net.
•District 5, Sen. Louis Pate, 300 N. Salisbury St., Room 406, Raleigh, N.C. 27603-5925. Raleigh office phone: (919) 733-5621. Local telephone: (919) 658-3637. E-mail address: Louis.Pate@ncleg.net

Wayne County Board of Commissioners
•Commission Chairman J.D. Evans, District 2, P.O. Box 37, Dudley, N.C., 28333. Phone: (919) 735-5684.

Goldsboro City Council
•Mayor Al King, 1201 Porter Street. Home phone: 736-1444
•Mayor Pro-Tem Chuck Allen (District 5), 810 Park Avenue, 734-1705.

Published in Editorials on May 2, 2011 3:05 PM