Raleigh News & Observer: Poll of N.C. political candidates finds support for less secrecy
Poll finds support for less secrecy
MATTHEW EISLEY, Staff Writer
A majority of North Carolina's statewide political candidates say government agencies that illegally withhold public records should have to pay the legal fees of citizens or media organizations who sue to get the records, a new survey of the candidates shows.
More than 70 percent of the candidates surveyed said they favor the proposed change in state law as a way to promote open government across the state.
The support is bipartisan, according to a Sunshine Week newspaper survey of 40 candidates for the state's highest elected executive offices, from governor to secretary of agriculture.
"Here's some poor guy out here trying to put gas in his tank, and a public agency doesn't supply records. What chance does he have of hiring an attorney?" said retired Air Force Col. Dennis Nielsen, a Democratic candidate for governor. "Those records don't belong to them. They belong to me and you."
Former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, a Republican candidate for governor, said residents who sue and win should automatically get reimbursed.
"I think that's the biggest impediment to both the press and the public to challenging [secrecy]," Orr said. "When a local government says, 'No, we're not going to give it to you,' you have two options: You can sue, or you can forget about it. It becomes a business decision."
State law allows prevailing parties to win legal fees in public records suits, but often they are not granted.
The survey also found broad support among the political candidates for a law requiring the disclosure of finalists for top state and university positions.
"If we made public all the names of people who applied for jobs, we probably wouldn't have many people apply," said lawyer Wayne Goodwin, a Democrat running for insurance commissioner. "But once you're down to a final three or four, then in the interest of open government, I'd favor letting the public know."
Other candidates said that publicizing the finalists would give the public and the press a chance to help investigate them, and would encourage public participation in the final selection.
The survey was organized by the N.C. Open Government Coalition, based at Elon University's School of Communications, for use by the public and the media during Sunshine Week, which starts today. Sunshine Week is a national initiative to draw awareness to the importance of open government.
All eight candidates for governor participated in the survey. Some highlights, in addition to the comments by Orr and Nielsen:
* LT. GOV. BEVERLY PERDUE, a Democrat, said the public should gain greater access to information about state government.
"With technology, there's no reason people all over the state can't easily access information about the General Assembly, the Lieutenant Governor's Office, the Treasurer's Office," she said.
* CHARLOTTE MAYOR PAT McCRORY, a Republican candidate, said he would like to see three improvements of state sunshine laws: greater disclosure of potential conflicts of interest, electronic record-keeping of official meetings and stiffer penalties for lawbreakers.
But McCrory said he opposes a proposal for a state constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds vote of state legislators to pass bills reducing the public's access to information.
"I believe in only majority vote," the mayor said.
* STATE SEN. FRED SMITH, a Republican candidate, said he's familiar with the state's public-records and open-meetings laws.
"As a county commissioner, they taught us about that," he said. "We knew that if there were three of us together, it was a meeting. When I came to the General Assembly, all that went out the window. They meet in private all the time."
* STATE TREASURER RICHARD MOORE, a Democratic candidate, said he opposes automatic payment of legal costs for people who have to sue to get records.
"That would fly in the face of the great tradition in the country of, unless there are egregious abuses, both parties pay their legal costs," he said. "... If a governmental body is not following the law, you would think the voters would vote them out. I think we have appropriate remedies there."
* SALISBURY TRIAL LAWYER BILL GRAHAM, a Republican candidate, mostly gave one-word yes or no answers. But he said he supports opening records to the public unless they involve personnel matters or medical information.
"I'm always going to err on the side of more openness," he said. "The sooner you identify a problem, the sooner you can have an opportunity to fix it."
* FARMER ELBIE POWERS, a Republican candidate, said government officials who violate the state public records law should have to pay a personal fine.
"It should come from the elected official's pay," he said. "Let's start narrowing this problem down, because every time a public official makes a mistake, the taxpayer has to pay for it."
To another question, Powers replied, "I can't think of anything that would come before me that I would want to keep secret, because it's the public's business."
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