The following editorial was published in the August 2015 print edition of Carolina Journal.
In July, a host of media organizations and a couple of left-leaning advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against Gov. Pat McCrory and a number of his Cabinet officials, saying the administration effectively had 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.”
Governor, that’s not the way our system works. No public official has the power to determine what constitutes “legitimate news gathering.” That’s why the Founders and their successors insisted on the free-speech guarantees expressed in U.S. and N.C. constitutions and the open meetings and public records laws, among other measures of accountability. The government doesn’t get to decide how the public’s business is reported, nor whether it will comply with requests for public information.
The administration could have prevented this lawsuit merely by cooperating with inquiries from the media and other members of the public more openly. Too often, in Carolina Journal‘s 25 years of covering state and local government, 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.
The current dispute names as defendants the governor and his secretaries of commerce, environment, health and human services, public safety, administration, transportation, cultural resources, and revenue, claiming that these officials and their subordinates have — among other things — failed to provide copies of public records in a timely manner, charged excessive fees for copies of those records, failed to acknowledge requests for records, and denied or concealed the existence of public records. If proven in court, any of these would constitute violations of the Public Records Law.
The complaint cites 11 potential violations. Of particular interest to CJ readers, in January 2014 the Southern Environmental Law Center requested public records from the Department of Transportation related to the proposed tolling project along Interstate 77 north of Charlotte. After repeated follow-up requests, NCDOT surrendered the records in May 2015 — after the administration had signed a contract with a private party to build the project.
The other violations as described in the complaint are egregious as well. The level of conflict between the executive branch and public watchdogs is unnecessary and avoidable — and the tendency to bicker about the volume of public records requests only fuels suspicions that the government is hiding something.
If we were betting types, we’d place a substantial wager that as this lawsuit moves forward, not only will the administration lose (and probably have to pay the media groups’ legal costs), but it also will be ordered to comply with future requests faster and more completely.
The governor may not like this outcome, but it’s the cost of doing business if you’re a public official.