Audio of an interview with Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, after Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee meeting is available here.

RALEIGH — A Sunshine Week meeting to discuss a proposed new law making a violation of the state’s open government laws found some senators not too keen on the idea.

The sponsor of Senate Bill 125, Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, said he hoped the move would prompt public officials to be more open.

“I would hope that this would sort of change the default position on meetings and records to open rather than closed,” Goolsby told a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Tuesday considering the bill. “They’re not our papers. They’re not our meetings. It’s not our money.”

Goolsby said he introduced the bill in response to some closed meetings held in his home county regarding the local ABC commission. The measure has the support of a top leader of the chamber, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, who’s listed as the bill’s primary sponsor.

Sunshine Week, sponsored by various media organizations, nonprofits, libraries, and schools, is a national initiative promoting the importance of open government and freedom of information. Elected officials often use Sunshine Week as an opportunity to introduce and highlight measures related to government transparency and openness.

At Tuesday’s meeting, a number of committee members expressed reservations with the bill’s provision that would make violating the law a misdemeanor. One senator went as far as to call herself “a professional secret-keeper.”

That was freshman Sen. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake.

“I just come from the area where of my world where everything is confidential,” Barringer said. “I’m a professional secret-keeper as a lawyer. I don’t discuss anything about my clients with anybody.”

Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, wanted wording inserted into the bill that would show that the failure to comply with the law was of willful intent.

“I think you could make an honest mistake and deny something,” Wade said.

Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, said the proposal would be swinging the pendulum too far.

“Why would anyone want to discharge their duties if they’re potentially dealing with a criminal charge?” Brunstetter asked. “These are judgment calls as to what is a public document and what is not a public document.”

Brunstetter said that public officials are increasingly dealing with people on “large-scale fishing expeditions” who are requesting a lot of public records.

After the meeting, Goolsby said that he would continue to work on revising the bill to meet some of the senators’ concerns, such as adding the words “willful and knowingly” to the law.

But he said a change needs to occur because public bodies continue to skirt open government laws now.

“You can’t get into a meeting; you can’t get a record that you’re supposed to get,” Goolsby said. “And the bottom line is what do you do to fix it? Oh, you can sue us, and maybe you’ll get a judgment against us, and that’ll mean that we’ll have to turn the record over to you.”

Goolsby said tougher penalties are needed.

“You criminalize it as they’ve done in many other states,” Goolsby said, referring to a memo prepared by the N.C. Press Association showing that 20 states have criminal penalties for violations of public records laws and 21 have such penalties for violations of open meetings laws.

The updated version of the bill would specify that the person being charged would be the elected or appointed official in charge of the office, not a staffer who was just enforcing a superior’s policy.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.