Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Your protection against government secrets

Want to know who’s trying to get the corner lot rezoned to build a Wal-Mart SuperCenter?

Want to know which City Council members voted for a stronger tree ordinance? Want to know who donated money to candidates in last fall’s City Council election? (Answer: Probably developers.)

Want to know how much the top staff in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ superintendent’s office are being paid?

You can find out all those things and plenty of other stuff, because government records in North Carolina are open to the public. They have to give you the information, even if they don’t approve of how you might use it.

Government meetings are open, too. They have to let you in, unless the meeting’s about a few very carefully defined topics, such as hiring/firing, or legal advice.

That’s why the Observer’s reporters have been able to write about the lengthy list of violations found over the years at Liberty Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where resident Mary Cole went missing for four days, and died shortly after she was found in a storage closet. (Today’s coverage )

That’s why Observer reporters could find out that the Synthron Inc. chemical plant in Morganton – which exploded Tuesday – had been assessed $87,600 in state fines in the past five years for serious hazardous waste violations.

That’s why an Eastover couple fighting a developer’s plans to build houses in the floodplain could inspect every floodplain development permit issued in the county.

In other words, if you care to learn what your elected officials and governments are doing with your tax dollars, open records and open meetings laws ensure that you can.

Of course, governments now and again try to get around the law, because sometimes they don’t want people to know what they are up to, either because they’re up to no good, or – as is more often the case – they suspec what they’re doing could get them in political hot water. Most reporters have war stories about county boards holding illegally closed meetings, or bureaucrats who refuse to give you public records.

That’s why neighborhood activists should think strongly of joining the other folks who’ll be among the crowd – historians, librarians, lawyers, elected officials, etc. – at a March 13 conference in Raleigh, “Are We Safer In The Dark?”

Sessions include forums with top lawyers who deal with open government issues, as well as the broadcast of a panel discussion from Washington, D.C., of experts from around the country discussing government secrecy and other open government issues.

The March 13 conference is sponsored by the N.C. Open Government Coalition, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring and enhancing the public’s access to government activity, records and meetings.

The conference is at Exploris, 201 E. Hargett St., in Raleigh. Cost is $30, including lunch. A registration form is on the coalition’s web site.


Anonymous said...

Open Meetings and Open Records are vitial to everyone. Typically it takes a major issue for anyone to withold information. The response to gather the witheld information brings just too much attention to the very issue that was trying to be concealed.

The true friend of concealment is the Consent Agenda coupled with citizen apathy. Many times rules are passed or changed on the Consent Agenda because there will be no discussion from the Board or Council. When these rules are implemented and enforced people ask when was the change made and the answer is usually found on the Consent Agenda. Enacted in public but without debate. Hiding in plain view.

Anonymous said...

And they is there usually a $30 fee for events like these? Perhaps to discourage the average Joe from showing up? Just a thought.

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