By Kari Travis
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — N.C. Senate leaders say they value government transparency — especially given the COVID-19 pandemic. A bill recently filed in the House presents an opportunity for those senior officials to show commitment to the state’s “sunshine laws.”
House Bill 1111, Sunshine Amendment, would make access to public records and meetings a constitutional right in North Carolina. Under state law, public meetings must be noticed and open to any resident who wants to attend. Similarly, public records like emails, financial reports, and other official documents must be available to the public. H.B. 1111 would add those protections to the state’s constitution.
If H.B. 1111 passes the legislature, it would be sent before voters in November. The bill is similar to the famous Florida “Sunshine Amendment,” which was ratified by that state’s voters in 1992. The provision broke ground, becoming the first constitutional amendment of its kind in the United States.
North Carolina has the opportunity to follow suit — and the timing couldn’t be more appropriate, said John Bussian, a media lawyer who represents the N.C. Press Association and Carolina Journal.
When COVID-19 spread into North Carolina and Gov. Roy Cooper ordered a total shutdown of all non-essential businesses, in-person meetings transitioned online. Video calls, conference calls, and virtual news conferences became the norm.
Public meetings evolved, and so the law evolved with it.
Today, North Carolina’s public meetings and records laws have been amended to allow remote and virtual gatherings during a statewide emergency, such as that presented by the pandemic. Under new rules, government bodies are required to livestream audio or video of virtual meetings, use roll call votes, and identify members by name. Any chats, texts, instant messages, or emails exchanged among members of a public body during virtual meetings are now considered public records.
“Given the light the virus crisis has shed on the need for government accountability — and the need for the government to be upfront with people — there couldn’t be a better time for the Sunshine Amendment to be put on the ballot,” Bussian told CJ.
H.B. 1111, sponsored by Reps. Mitchell Setzer, R-Catawba, and Stephen Ross, R-Alamance, doesn’t yet have a Senate counterpart. CJ reached out to Setzer’s office via email Tuesday, May 19, seeking comment on who in the Senate might support the legislation. Setzer didn’t immediately respond.
A few statements from Senate leaders Monday, May 18, indicate the subject is important to those who could give the bill a pathway.
“Transparency and communication is what is paramount in any type of crisis that we have,” Senate Majority Whip Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, told the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee during a discussion about dysfunction in the state’s unemployment insurance program.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, held a news conference Monday in the legislative auditorium, providing marked seats to create social distance among reporters. All journalists present were allowed to step up to a microphone and speak with Berger if they wished.
“It’s nice to be able to take questions and allow follow-ups from you all today,” Berger said during his opening remarks. “Transparency and accessibility is necessary during times of crisis. Unfortunately, that’s been missing from the executive branch during this time.”
Cooper is prohibiting members of the media from attending news briefings in person to prevent the spread of Covid-19. During his time as state attorney general, Cooper, a Democrat, championed public records and open meetings laws, even releasing a handbook on the topic. But today, when reporters phone into news conferences, Cooper’s staff screens the calls to decide who gets through, and who doesn’t. Carolina Journal is nearly always blocked from asking the governor questions.
Transparency isn’t partisan — and H.B. 1111 is designed to be impartial, Bussian said. Simply put, the bill is a constitutional assurance of government transparency for every North Carolinian.
“It’s a good, neutral start to a long-range effort to improve open government law in North Carolina,” Bussian said. “It’s about everybody.”