Opinion: Daily Journal

New governor must make transparency a priority

It's a hopeful sign that Gov.-elect Roy Cooper helped write the book on N.C.'s public records law

Gov-elect Roy Cooper, at an April 9 event. (Photo courtesy of Flickr)
Gov-elect Roy Cooper, at an April 9 event. (Photo courtesy of Flickr)

It’s an interesting time for news reporters in North Carolina and across the country.

Newspapers, for example, are closing and consolidating. The consistency and frequency in which this is happening isn’t alarming, really. It’s been going on for a while. It does, however, portend a certain future, which is by no means rosy.

More papers will close, more will merge, and more reporters will be shown the door.

Yet this election season has given news outlets a unique opportunity to engage readers in an unprecedented way, beyond the obvious and ubiquitous.

People have become more alert to the political shifts so inherent in our republic, more attuned to emergent dangers, and more determined to find their distinct voice.

Tweets and posts on social media have evolved past the inconsequential and mundane to become pertinent and introspective.

Important.

Our elected leaders would do well to absorb this information evolution and move further toward a policy of openness. It’s here that North Carolina can — and should — take the lead, starting with the new governor.

Roy Cooper should make transparency a priority, promoting an effort to release information that falls clearly under the North Carolina Public Records Act, responding promptly to pertinent questions regarding issues affecting our state’s residents.

Getting such information is often a struggle, from all areas of government. The governor’s office, in our recent experience, has been no exception.

Last summer, we wrote about a lawsuit from a host of media organizations and a couple of left-leaning advocacy groups filed against Gov. Pat McCrory and some of his Cabinet officials. The lawsuit, our editorial said, contended the administration effectively stonewalled a series of requests under North Carolina’s Public Records Law. “In response, the governor issued a press release citing ‘exploitation’ of public records requests by these organizations and saying his administration ‘is a champion of transparency and fair and legitimate news gathering.’”

We wrote this: “The failure by public officials to answer basic questions can cause a simple query for information to escalate into a major document request — and, sometimes, costly lawsuits.”

A veritable snowball effect. Simply put, public officials would do well to follow the law as it’s written, as opposed to acting as an ad hoc arbiter when such requests for public records arise.

Cooper already has set a precedent in this regard, and we’ll do our best to make sure he follows through on it.

Several years ago, as state attorney general, Cooper, in concert with the N.C. Press Association, released a 12-page booklet called “North Carolina Guide to Open Government and Public Records.”

In the introduction, Cooper writes: “The spirit with which public officials work to comply with the law is as important as the law itself.”

The guide, for public officials throughout the state, encourages these officials to, when in doubt, work toward resolving the question in favor of fairness.

“Strong laws and a commitment to openness will ensure that North Carolina residents are informed about government’s business.”

Well said. But positive action is what counts.

Reports and news groups have wandered into a unique blip in history.

The president-elect continues to call the media biased and crooked; he recently canceled a meeting with The New York Times before changing his mind and rescheduling it. He has so far failed to hold a news conference focusing on his transition to the White House and seemingly finds the First Amendment perplexing.

We’re optimistic Donald Trump will come to appreciate the benefits of openness and transparency. We’re confident he’ll soon realize there’s no other way.