March 17, 2006

Sunshine week

Its Sunshine Week, a week dedicated to openess in government, a very important cause. The N&O has a series of articles, while the Wed. Sentinel has a surprisingly weak pullout section that appears to be a local reprint of material from the national Sunshine Week group with local ads added. This is surprising for a paper that has made quite a name for itself going after local governments that violate open meetings and public record rules.
What really got me thinking was an article in the N&O detailing at speech by NC Attorney General Roy Cooper. Cooper talked a lot about putting teeth in the states laws.
Cooper said the internal culture of government often disrespects the public's right to know whats happening, contrary to state law and good management.

Cooper said too many state and local government workers violate the public's right of access to government information, often out of ignorance. His office and the N.C. Press Association are putting together a sunshine manual for government officials.

Cooper suggested that government workers who illegally withhold public records or close meetings might deserve punishment.
He is not going to get many votes from the State Employees Association for that kind of language but he is right about finding ways to protect the public's right to know what its government is doing and I have two suggestions.
First pass an open meetings rule for the NC legislature. There is a ridiculous double standard in this state when the legislature meets in private to set rules to require other public bodies to meet in public. Get the General Assembly to hold open committee meetings, especially regarding the budget. Many of the problems with the budget, like the last minute changes to the lottery bill and the eye exam requirement for school admission, could have been avoided with a little sunshine.
Secondly, if an elected official shows an egregious disregard for the law take away their right to serve as an elected official either for a length of time or forever if the crime is bad enough. In fact take away the right to vote, no jail time just forbid the individual from participating in public life in North Carolina. The threat of removal from office with no hope of return would be a pretty strong deterrent for most elected officials. Establish and independent panel for review and provide one court appeal. Yes it could be strung out for a while but just the negative publicity from a conviction should be enough to keep an offender out of office.
Just a thought.


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