03/17/11 — LaRoque pushes to make public's right to know law

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LaRoque pushes to make public's right to know law

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 17, 2011 1:46 PM

State Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, is making open government one of his top priorities this session, and he would like to see it made part of the state constitution.

In a bill introduced last month in the House -- with an identical one introduced in the Senate and co-sponsored by Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston -- LaRoque said he is seeking to make access to any public record a state right.

"It's important to everybody. Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent, and I think they should have access to the information about where taxpayer money is being used. That should be a right, not a privilege," LaRoque said.

The proposed amendment, which would need to be approved not only by the General Assembly and signed by the governor, but which would require a public referendum, would not change any existing laws on open government or public records.

"It has zero effect on anything on the books right now," he said.

That means this amendment would not change the ability of local boards to go into closed session to discuss legal issues, certain personnel matters or certain economic development issues. It also would not change what parts of an employee's file are considered public record.

If approved, LaRoque explained that such restrictions on public records could be repealed by a simple majority, and in fact, a bill was just filed in the state Senate to make public more information about public workers' performance, as well as why an employee was promoted, demoted or transferred.

However, under the proposed amendment, the creation or any further exemption to what is considered public record would require a three-fifths majority vote of the General Assembly.

And that's the part of the proposal that has received the most criticism from those who say it would hurt the state's ability to respond to extraordinary circumstances -- one example of which has been the case in Colorado after the Columbine shootings when it was questioned whether school evacuation plans should be public record.

But that, LaRoque says, is simply a bad argument.

"We'll be as nimble as we need to be," he said. "We would have no trouble coming together as a supermajority in the case of an extraordinary event."

Bringing up issues like Columbine or a terrorist attack, he said, deflects from opponents' true desires -- to keep government as secret as possible.

"They want to have government a little bit closed," he said. "My question to them is, what are you hiding? What are you afraid of?"

Wayne County Board of Commissioners Chairman J.D. Evans said, though, that while local government doesn't have anything to hide, he doesn't see the need for such an amendment.

"At this point, I don't see the necessity of a new law," he said. "What we do as a public body is already public information from the beginning.

"This board has not had the opportunity to present anything that we do not want the public to know. It has never been a problem with us, and I don't see it becoming a problem. We discuss things in open session and if it is open session, then it is obviously information that is available to the general public. To have a law to keep this from happening, we need a majority vote of the commission. I don't see the relevancy of it all. There may be reasons, but until I see those reasons at this point I can live with the present law."

But, Rouzer said, having such an amendment would ultimately lead to better government in North Carolina.

"I've always been a supporter of having a more open and transparent government," Rouzer said.

And while LaRoque said he believes local governments are often the worst offenders, for Rouzer, the focus is on making the state government more transparent.

"I don't think the public is well served when a budget is written behind closed doors. I don't think that is very good government," he said. "Having the public more informed lets us make better, more informed decisions.

"It's just a fundamental precept."

And he thinks that with the Republicans in control of the General Assembly now, after so many years as the minority party, this amendment has a good chance of making it to the ballot, and if it does, LaRoque believes it will receive support from the voting public.

"If we get this on the ballot, I'm going to say 70 to 80 percent of North Carolina will vote for it," he said.

If approved, the amendment would be on the ballot in Nov. 6, 2012, and would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013.