‘Sunshine is the best disinfectant’

Government transparency expert speaks at RCC

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

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HAMLET — Even the experts get told no.

But Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition based at Elon University, said it’s always better to ask than to presume the answer. Jones spoke for more than 45 minutes on Thursday inside Room 103 of the Joseph W. Grimsley Building at Richmond Community College.

Kevin Spradlin |PeeDeePost.com Mary Evans, of Hamlet, talks with Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition.

Kevin Spradlin |PeeDeePost.com
Mary Evans, of Hamlet, talks with Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition.

His audience? More than a dozen members of Doug Carter’s Introduction to Ethics class, as well as members of Richmond County’s daily and other local media outlets.

“Public records are the property of the people,” said Jones, a former journalist in Greensboro and Maryland and former Durham prosecutor.

He spoke in the middle of Sunshine Week, a time each year that media outlets and open government advocates rally together under a united cause of keeping government documents and actions open to public scrutiny.

It’s not always as simple as asking. Sometimes government agency representatives do their best to stymie  certain requests. Still other times, lawmakers themselves add to the list of exemptions that keep an ever-growing list of government records hidden from public review.

During the 2014 legislative session, North Carolina lawmakers took a machete to open government by adding a handful of exemptions to the public records law, among them:

* Records of agricultural pollutant complaints and investigations (conditional);
* Base Realignment and Closure committee;
* Economic development incentives offered by governments (conditional);
* Chemicals used in fracking;
* School safety plan schematics.

One might be able to argue the reasoning behind not allowing the public a first-hand look at a school’s safety and security plan. Still, most of the exemptions added in 2014 could have a direct impact on the public. Jones said he feels the public has a right to know what chemicals are used in the process of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Jonathan Jones of theNorth Carolina Open Government Coalition

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Jonathan Jones of theNorth Carolina Open Government Coalition

Hamlet native Mary Evans, one of the very few members of the general public to sit in on the discussion, said her son recently worked for a hog farm located on the border of Richmond and Scotland counties. His job was to implant sperm into a sow and increase reproduction rates among the herd. Evans said her son was certified and very good at his job, but he left the job anyway.

There were a number of issues that caused her son to voice concerns to other hog farm workers, Evans said. Her son was educated on what is and is not allowed “because he read the manuals.”

“He knew,” Evans said. “He was telling me all the pollutant things that were harmful. He left because he felt powerless to do anything about it.”

Even if he’d reported his concerned to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Evans’ son likely never would have heard another thing about it. That’s because unless an investigation results in some sort of disciplinary measure by DENR, the state agency will no longer release the records related to the investigation.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Jonathan Jones of theNorth Carolina Open Government Coalition

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Jonathan Jones of theNorth Carolina Open Government Coalition

“We don’t know what is going on because it’s not public anymore,” Evans said.

Jones agreed. He said the law was changed, he thought, because hog farmers “were driving … the desire to remove agricultural pollution complaints from the public record because environmental groups were making complaints about the hog farmers.”

“That’s big business in North Carolina,” Jones said.

Jones said people also could suffer due to a lack of knowledge about fracking.

“That’s big industry there,” Jones said. “We’re about to have it. It seems to be a culture in our state right now where we’re gonna protect information about business … that will foster economic growth in our state. Certainly, we all want to see economic growth, but if we do it at the expense of the people by keeping information away from them, it’s not worth it.”

The event was coordinated by the Richmond County Daily Journal‘s Corey Friedman, content manager. He was joined by staff reporters William Toler, Shawn Stinson and Matt Harrelson. Friedman spokes briefly and recalled his time with the Wilson Times as a reporter. There, he said, he faced a surprising public records challenge in the town of Middlesex, in southern Nash County.

“When the mayor of Middlesex threatened to have me arrested, I knew it was a joke,” Friedman said, “but I knew there was a part of him that wanted to se me led out of the room in handcuffs.”

Friedman recalled how the Town Council had passed an ordinance that if fulfilling a Freedom of Information Act request took more than 30 minutes, the town government would charge the person who requested the information the full salary and benefits of the person tasked with fulfilling the request. That could mean, he said, $26 to $28 per hour for the town clerk or “close to double that” if the town manager were to take on the task.

“Instantly, when I heard about this, I said, ‘that’s gotta be a story. There’s no way that can be legal,'” Friedman said.

There was  no victory identified. Friedman said the town continues to charge for staff time after 30 minutes. The state government uses the standard of four hours or more before it begins charging or staff time.

Filed in: Education, Featured News, Latest Headlines, News

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