Open meetings, open records, open eyes
Last August, eight Indiana newspapers launched a statewide audit of public records access and found that only 11 of the state’s 92 counties granted all requests. A few months prior, Cedar Park, Texas, City Council members held a meeting without a quorum. By their actions — whether intentional or not — the Indiana counties and Texas town violated the two main components of open government: open records and open meetings.
In some cases, local government employees and elected officials are not entirely aware of their limits when dealing with the public’s right to know. Open meetings laws vary among states and establish the public’s right to attend government meetings. In addition, each state has its own open records law that governs exactly what records residents may and may not request from any public office. Not knowing the limits can result in costly and embarrassing lawsuits for local governments.
The Cedar Park case was opened when a former council member filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office decrying that some council members met illegally to discuss and come to a decision about the former town manager. To avoid indictments, the council members struck deals with the attorney general requiring them to take open government classes, fully cooperate with an investigation and testify about their violation to state legislators. The actions of the council members for the town of less than 40,000 residents has added fuel to a bill currently under consideration by Texas legislators that would require all elected officials to attend open government classes to learn about the Open Records and the Open Meetings acts.
Despite some violations, cities and counties appear to favor more open government, according to Jeremy Ratner, media relations manager for the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACo). While NACo does not have an official position on open records law, the lobbying organization’s research department sees a growing trend in open government. “Our research director does not see a move towards more restrictive open records laws. In fact, she has seen more states lean towards open laws,” Ratner says.
Tight budgets, however, keep some local governments from fully preparing to comply with the laws. Andrew Romanet, chief council and lobbyist for the North Carolina League of Municipalities, says many small cities cannot afford attorneys to advise them on open records and open meetings laws. “Public service at the municipal level is not compensated that well,” he says, which makes it difficult for elected officials and staff to take time off to attend open records and open meetings courses.
Without training, many local government employees attempt to fall back on common sense logic. “If you ran a business and I walked in and told you ‘I want to see what your employees make,’ what would be your response?” Romanet asks. Common sense would keep those records private, but in a government office, those records are open. Providing names and addresses, even to a known sex offender, is another example of an act that could appear prohibited to the layman. However, in North Carolina, if the record is classified as “open,” it is open to anyone who requests it, and the government employee may not ask for whom or what purposes the request is made.
Because custodians of public records are not centralized in a single department within a government, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill professor Frayda Bluestein says the best defense against lawsuits is employees who know the laws in their states. “The most important thing is to know what things are required to be made public,” she says. As Cedar Park discovered, sidestepping the law can get a small town in a whole heap of trouble, not to mention embarrassment.
— Robert Kelly-Goss is a Nags Head, N.C.-based freelance writer.