Earlier today, I had an op-ed in the Burlington Times-News about the sorry state of North Carolina’s public records laws:
Access to public records is a basic requirement of any democratic system. Through public records requests, North Carolina citizens can keep their elected officials accountable by keeping close tabs on the activities of state and local governments. Trust, but verify.
Unfortunately, North Carolina’s public records laws have proven to be an impediment, rather than a gateway, to access. Despite lofty statements promising broad access, the majority of our law is dedicated to placing limitations on requestors of public records that allow government agencies to duck, dodge, and delay. Of the 15 bills introduced at the General Assembly this session affecting records access, only two — Senate Bill 636 and Senate Bill 633 — make any positive strides towards transparency.
Further, and most problematically, the law allows private citizens to seek assistance from a court in only one situation — when a government agency denies a records request. This creates a murky legal swamp where a government agency can take no action on a records request, while not “officially” denying it, for months, if not years, without fear of judicial scrutiny. Various agencies across our state have taken restrictive and mutually incompatible stances regarding disclosure, to the point that it can be difficult to figure out how to even request records.