Yesterday, I joined the rest of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition in Durham for Sunshine Day, an annual event where leaders from various fields come together to discuss North Carolina’s open records laws. Unfortunately, this was just two weeks after a bill was introduced to place more exceptions on access to public records for North Carolinians:
North Carolina’s public records law can be found in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132. The statute defines “public record” as follows:
“Public record” or “public records” shall mean all [records], regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions.
The law even goes so far as to say the following:
The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people. Therefore, it is the policy of this State that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise specifically provided by law.
If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. While § 132-1 paints a picture of a broad public records act that allows easy access to government records, the law goes on to list numerous exceptions — and here is where Sen. Lee’s bill comes back into the picture.
Senate Bill 194 seeks to enact a law with the following title: “An Act to Provide that a Usage Contract Entered Into Between the State Ports Authority and a Carrier is Not a Public Record.” The bill seeks to amend Section 136 of the general statutes (transportation laws) by adding the following language:
A usage contract entered into between the [Port] Authority and a carrier is not a public record within the meaning of G.S. 132-1. For purposes of this section, the term “usage contract” means a contract or agreement that contains terms and conditions involving terminal services related to maritime activities, including dockage, wharfage, cargo handling, storage, ro-ro service, transportation drainage, and other miscellaneous port services.
So, this bill seeks to hide from public scrutiny contracts entered into between state agencies and private entities. How, one might wonder, could anyone ever justify such a blatant attempt to obscure the actions of government from public scrutiny? If you’re a veteran at this sort of thing, then you probably already know the answer — economic development, that always promised and rarely delivered benefit that has been used to justify failed corporate incentives, the demolishing of private homes for public use, and plans to hide even more more government expenditures from public scrutiny.