News: CJ Exclusives

Legislation would make crimes of open-government violations

Incident involving Carolina Journal at Military Affairs Commission in part inspired bill

Larry Hall, secretary of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, at the Feb. 7 Military Affairs Commission meeting. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Larry Hall, secretary of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, at the Feb. 7 Military Affairs Commission meeting. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

Open government violations at a Feb. 7 North Carolina Military Affairs Commission meeting prompted legislation to make such offenses a crime. The incident could affect the Senate confirmation process of Larry Hall as secretary of military and veterans affairs, according to state Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico.

Sanderson said he co-sponsored Senate Bill 77 partly in response to a situation during the meeting at which Hall objected to a Carolina Journal reporter being present. The meeting was not advertised, as the state’s Public Meetings Law requires. The agenda was circulated to commission members and a few other parties by email.

Chairman Brig. Gen. Mabry “Bud” Martin then pulled a discussion item off the agenda, only to add it back after the CJ reporter and others who came to hear that presentation had left.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has said the Senate advise-and-consent confirmation process of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Cabinet nominees is needed to determine, among other issues, their willingness to obey the law.

As a result of Hall’s involvement with closing portions of the meeting to the public, he may be asked why during his confirmation hearing, Sanderson said. “I think it’s a fair question to ask because people do need to know where the people who are taking these very high profile, very important positions … stand on things like just simply obeying the law.”

A spokeswoman of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs told CJ the meeting was not advertised publicly on the Secretary of State’s website as legally required. The situation drew the interest of The News & Observer, which reported on it.

S.B. 77 would make violations of state public meetings and open records laws a Class 3 misdemeanor, carrying a fine of up to $200 and possible jail sentence of one to 20 days.

“The people of North Carolina want good government, which includes transparency and fairness. If government officials are concerned about open meeting penalties, they will go the extra mile to ensure transparency,” said Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort.

“I filed a bill that would add some teeth to the state’s open meetings and public records laws to get their attention. Under the current statute, one can violate the law with impunity,” Cook said. S.B. 77 is the same as a measure he co-sponsored in 2013.

“Open government is vital to an informed public,” Cook said. “Currently, officials will knowingly close the door on the public because they most likely will not be held accountable.”

Nationally recognized media law expert John Bussian, a lawyer based in Raleigh, said Cook and Sanderson “deserve a medal of honor for filing it.”

“North Carolina, in my view, still has one of the worst public records laws in the country,” Bussian said. “With the exception of Mississippi, most Southern states have far better open government laws than we do.”

Florida “is still the gold standard” for open government laws, Bussian said. “They have criminal and civil penalties [to punish violators], and we should too.”

When Florida implemented its laws two decades ago, some district attorneys filed charges against local elected officials for breaking the law, and one city commissioner was jailed, Bussian said.

“Since then you see far less open and flagrant violations of open meetings and public records laws in Florida,” Bussian said.

Sanderson believes S.B. 77 is vital to maintaining public trust in government.

“We still all take an oath to uphold the laws,” Sanderson said. “We can’t write laws, and put them out there for the public to have to live by if we’re not willing to live by the laws that govern what we do.”

Without a stricter law, elected officials are “more apt to try to brush up against the line or to skirt the issue” of compliance, he said.

State lawmakers are hearing of increasing levels of open government violations, Sanderson said. They can’t credibly blame ignorance of the law because government bodies usually have lawyers advising them at meetings, he added.

“The incident that happened with Military Affairs Commission was one of several that I know about that’s happened over the last several months,” Sanderson said, and it “was not handled appropriately.”

Hall’s desire to prevent the public from seeing a presentation that was on the agenda was not the correct procedure, Sanderson said. “You [the CJ reporter]  knew it, and he knew it.”

However, he said, Martin was was trying to get off on the right foot with Hall, a Marine and the former House Democratic leader, who would run the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs if confirmed as secretary.

Martin said he would allow the presentation to be offered at the meeting if the CJ reporter agreed not to report about it — a request the reporter rejected. Hall later told the reporter it would not be fair to other media to allow CJ to have a scoop, and he was not comfortable with CJ being the only media outlet to report what was discussed.

“It was bad enough to take it off the agenda,” Sanderson said. “I think that the biggest mistake … is that they decided to turn around and put it back on. It was unfortunate because I think it’s an issue that a lot of people need to know about.”

The 15-point wind energy presentation included 10 topics related to military bases.

It included health and environmental concerns over the giant wind turbines, net costs to host communities, consumer costs arising from a state law requiring purchase of renewable wind energy, weaknesses of state laws regarding wind energy, and federal legislation to consider.

The presentation also included discussion about potential negative impacts the Amazon Wind Farm project near Elizabeth City could have on a key military radar installation just inside the Virginia border, as well as adverse effects of proposed wind projects on military bases in eastern North Carolina.

“It’s something that we’re extremely interested in, especially those of us who have a military presence in our districts,” and for military contributions to the state economy, Sanderson said.