Public records exception lawmakers gave themselves slammed

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(The Center Square) – Opposition continues to mount against a controversial privilege for lawmakers included in the recently approved state budget that allows them to decide what is and is not public record.

Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican gubernatorial candidate known for transparency, was the latest to take aim at the budget provision during an “Ask Me Anything” call with reporters on Tuesday.

“As state treasurer, keeper of the public purse, and recipient of the Open Government Coalition’s Sunshine Award, I feel strongly that restricting public access to important public information reduces confidence in all levels of government, which is already at historical lows,” he said.

“By allowing individual lawmakers to determine what records are public and what material can be destroyed without ever seeing the sunshine of public view creates a system that does not have standards or accountability.”

“We applaud the treasurer speaking up against the change,” Phil Lucey, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association, told The Center Square.

Folwell’s comments follows an Oct. 3 letter from a coalition including the North Carolina Press Association, North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, the Carolina Journal, Radio One Charlotte and others outlining objections and calling on lawmakers to rescind the budget language.

“The newly introduced amendment grants custodians the power to determine what constitutes a public record and allows for the destruction of records that could otherwise be essential for transparency and accountability,” the letter read. “This change effectively creates a situation in which state lawmakers, who are also considered custodians of their records, could exempt themselves from public records law, denying citizens their right to scrutinize their government’s actions.”

The letter pointed to the unanimous state Court of Appeals decision in September in WBTV v. City of Charlotte that reiterated “public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina Government, or its subdivisions are the property of the people.”

The case, the coalition wrote, “reaffirmed the importance of the Public Records Act in ensuring accountability” and illustrated “it is more critical than ever to protect and strengthen the right of citizens to access government records.”

Lucey said the coalition has “not received a direct response” from lawmakers.

Section 27.9 on page 531 of the biennial budget gives custodians of public records in the Legislative Building – commonly referred to as “The People’s House” – the authority to “retain, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of, such records.” Lawmakers also removed another section of law that required lawmakers to reveal documents and communications related to the redistricting process.

The budget language sparked immediate backlash from Democrats, including several in both chambers who have vowed to continue releasing records, despite the new privilege. Other critics include the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and numerous media outlets that have published editorials bemoaning the change.

Republican budget negotiators say the change is aimed at clarifying vague law and codifying common practice with records requests. Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, told the media it was spawned by suggestions from legislative staff. Moore and other Republican leaders including House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne, have vowed to remain transparent, but have not committed to changing the law.

Other Republicans including Rep. Tim Reeder, of Pitt County, have defended the budget as a whole, but have expressed a willingness to reconsider the changes.

The coalition continues to urge the public to contact their lawmakers on the issue, in hopes of reversing course through an upcoming technical corrections bill, or other legislation next session, Lucey said.

In the meantime, “We’ll continue to do everything in our power to try to convince legislators to repeal the change,” he said.

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