Shining light on N.C. legislature's public records 'black hole'

Published March 27, 2024

By Capitol Broadcasting Company

North Carolina’s legislators recently received some much-deserved recognition.

But anyone who might want to check and see just how legislative leaders may have reacted in communications with fellow legislators to this notoriety is out of luck.

That’s just the point of the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual Black Hole Award -- bestowed annually to government agencies for “acts of outright contempt of the public’s right to know.”

Major public records law changes limiting citizens’ access to official legislative information were adopted in less than 24 hours without any advance notice and tucked deep inside the 625-page budget bill.

Now legislators on their own can decide if a record is public and determine on a whim, whether to destroy it, sell it, loan it without any involvement of the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources – the official custodian of all North Carolina state government records.

Records – such as most correspondence, meeting calendars, official travel details, and the like of statewide elected officials, cabinet secretaries, county commissioners, mayors and municipal council members are public and must be available. But now legislators, like Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, can decide on their own, if they’re public and pick who they might share them with.

Most significantly, it allows background information on legislation – such as that used to draw new congressional and legislative election districts – to be kept secret. On one of the most basic obligations to be open and transparent – just how it is determined which candidates’ voters get to pick – is now secret.

These provisions make it open season for the legislature to do the public’s business secretly, shielded from citizens’ view and without accountability to those state representatives and senators were elected to serve.

At the same time, the changes gave legislative staffers broad powers to access – seize is a more appropriate description -- information from private citizens and companies. It is the power to, without a court-ordered warrant – enter a private home or business and take whatever they want.

“Citizens are the bosses and it is not becoming of their elected employees to dictate to them without consultation what information they have a right to when it comes to their money and vote,” said Sterling Cooper, co-chair of the society’s Freedom of Information Committee.

“Lawmakers give new meaning to North Carolina’s First in Flight slogan,” said Jodi Rave Spotted Bear, chair of the society’s Freedom of Information Committee. “They changed public records laws to avoid having to comply with them.  State leaders now soar in the spirit of the Black Hole Award, an egregious recognition earned by trampling on the public right to information.”

Speaker Moore defended the provision as “fair” and allows legislators to determine when a citizen’s request for information is unreasonably broad or cumbersome.

The point that Moore overlooks, is that it is citizens who have paid for and own the information that they are seeking – it doesn’t belong to legislators.

It would be most appropriate for the legislative leaders, when they convene for their short session in a few weeks, to acknowledge the public records changes were not fully contemplated, misguided and needed to be repealed.

Further, rather than seeking ways to limit access to information about the legislature specifically or state government more broadly, legislators should look for opportunities to broaden access to public records and seek more ways to involve citizens.

They need to shine some light into the “Black Hole” they’ve dug.

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