N.C. public records laws need to be more transparent, locals say

By Noor Al-Sibai – [email protected] – Contributor
North Carolina’s laws regarding ethical publication of records include budgets receipts, official expenditures and open hearings. Despite open records laws and the official organizations that oversee them, the state got a D in budget transparency from the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group in a 2013 report titled “Following the Money.”
At the state and city levels, transparency often means the publication of important information affecting residents’ lives. First-time Asheville City Councilwoman Gwen Wisler said the city could improve by publishing information about topics like street pavings, sidewalk construction and other changes that affect the daily lives of residents.
“These things don’t seem like a big deal, but are helpful to people,” Wisler said. “That way, if you want your street paved, you at least know when it happens.”
At a recent planning retreat setting the council’s strategic goals for 2014, council members, City Manager Gary Jackson and Public Information Officer Dawa Hitch discussed methods of increasing public access to government information. The two-day meeting was free and open to the public.
Councilman Gordon Smith said information about council goals, policies and plans that came out of the meeting are available on the city’s website, but could be more easily accessible.
“There’s a thousand things we could address in this city and we have limited staff resources, so staff is looking for where there are seven votes plus enthusiasm,” Smith said. “We have to strengthen a more sustainable economy within the city, and I think there’s a pretty general agreement among council about that.”
While council members like Wisler and Smith, who campaigned on increased affordable housing, attempt to build up and to sustain the city’s infrastructure in a transparent manner and in accordance to North Carolina law, others are less confident about the lack of transparency in Raleigh.
Alex Fisher, the former president of the Buncombe County Young Democrats, said a disconnect exists between the city and the state’s manner of conducting proceedings openly.
“In fairly recent memory, I recall the water takeover. That kind of sticks out in my mind,” said 26-year-old Fisher, referring to the 2013 House Bill 488 that, if passed, shifts control of the city’s water system to the state.
The dichotomy between the openness of the city council and the general assembly, according to Fisher, result from differing political ideologies.
“Within Asheville proper, we’re seeing a huge boom of ‘go local’ movements, we’re obviously headed in the right direction,” Fisher said. “In Raleigh, not so much.”
“The Republicans in Raleigh have bullet-proof majorities and we’re kind of running rough shot,” Smith said. “Asheville has become something of a crucible for all these conservative and policies that haven’t even been demonstrated in other places, much less proven.”
Partisanship on the part of legislators, particularly those in the Republican majority in the North Carolina House of Representatives, is at the heart of the current political climate in Raleigh, according to Rep. Susan Fisher, Alex Fisher’s mother.
“A lot of decisions that were made about what bills would come to the floor and when they would be decided were made in rooms with the doors closed. In that sense, transparency was nonexistent, except to the people who had the need to know,” she said.
While legislators more or less adhere to transparency laws regarding money, issues outside the scope of budget openness made headlines.
Councilwoman Wisler said the coal ash spill in the Dan River concerns her, and she hopes the legislature will investigate and prosecute the parties who allowed it to happen.
“I certainly hope that the legislators hold their feet to the fire about the cleanup and make them pay,” Wisler said.  “We’ve got coal ash ponds in Western North Carolina, too, and we should be saying, are we sure that these things are sealed tight?”
Wisler said following open meeting laws is a personal priority.
“The basic rule is that if you have a number of people that can vote on an issue, then you have to declare that it’s an open meeting. You have to really make sure that you’re not talking about city business,” Wisler said. “We could all be at a party, but we can’t be talking together in a corner unless it’s declared a meeting. The general assembly doesn’t have those kind of rules.”
Susan Fisher said the first step to transparency and accountability includes adhering to ethics laws included in the state legislature’s Code of Ethics and Board of Elections regulations on official expenditures. The North Carolina Ethics Commission oversees government ethics and includes specific laws regarding official use of government funds and the publication of receipts.
“The first thing I remember being asked when I decided to run for office was, ‘Is there anything that you would not want somebody to know about you?’ Because your opposition has already found it out, and is publicizing it,” Fisher said.
Fisher was investigated and audited during her time as a legislator and said she had nothing to hide.
“A lot of people have this mentality when they become a public official that they don’t have to follow the rules, and that’s an attitude that, at least in my book, doesn’t get you very far,” Fisher said.