JLF Triangle Blog

North Carolina trails in yet another metric

North Carolina has been shown to be at the lower end of the 50 states in many different metrics, most recently job growth and education, but now there’s a new one at which we are characteristically underperforming: public records availability:

A report released Monday ranked access to public records in the Carolinas as among the worst in the country.

The study by the State Integrity Investigation, which ranks states by their corruption risk, found that both North and South Carolina public record laws fail to provide an appeals process for denied requests or impose penalties on agencies violating public records laws.

North Carolina’s access to public records ranked 43rd and South Carolina ranked 50th in the study, which also evaluated state budget processes, lobbying disclosure and judicial accountability. Both received an “F” in public access to information.

A public record is any information, document, or electronic data – such as a police report or court document – that a government agency is required to maintain by law, and which must be accessible to scrutiny by the public.

Any reporter who’s had to fight a local bureaucrat for records that should be public knows what a hassle it can be. Most of the time these government martinets simply refuse to obey the law, knowing that it is an expensive proposition to take them to court, and your already-in-the-red publisher probably won’t do it.

That’s why some mechanism, short of litigation, that would make them comply with the law would be very helpful and healthy for the polity:

North Carolina public record laws fail to provide oversight for requests and lack a way to appeal denied requests in a cost- and time-efficient way, according to the study. The only way to appeal a denied request is through a lawsuit.

“In North Carolina, the fact that there is no appeal process outside of the courts is a huge flaw,” said Diana Lopez, a senior editor at The Sunshine Review. “This does little to discourage the state and local governments from using a heavy hand when withholding records from the public.”

Some, however, (*cough* lawyers *cough*) like the idea that the only way to hold a stubborn local official’s feet to the fire is through a lawsuit:

But Hugh Stevens, a Raleigh attorney who has worked in open government matters for the past 30 years, said the lack of an appeals system isn’t always bad.

“A lawsuit can be an effective way to get people to turn over records,” said Stevens, who has represented clients including The Charlotte Observer, The Associated Press and WakeMed.

But as Hager found in her fight for information, lawsuits can be expensive.

Uh, yeah!

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