Sunshine Week kicked off Sunday to celebrate access to public information and open government. The Sunshine Center of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition is dedicated to providing residents with information about public records and open meetings law. The director of the coalition, Jonathan Jones, spoke to senior writer Amanda Albright about sunshine in the state. The interview has been edited for brevity.
THE DAILY TAR HEEL: What’s the history of Sunshine Week in North Carolina?
JONATHAN JONES: Sunshine Week is a national celebration of open government that started ten years ago. The N.C. Open Government Coalition also started ten years ago. We’re not the only ones who celebrate Sunshine Week — it was originally started by the American Society of News Editors. Newspapers across the state have started celebrating since its inception. It’s grown beyond newspapers, to TV and online. The public and government agencies participate — we’ve had some local governments doing Sunshine Week activities to highlight their efforts to inform the public.
DTH: How has the approach to sunniness changed in the last 10 years?
JJ: It’s hard to say that there’s been one big shift one way or another — it really kind of ebbs and flows. For the last six years, the coalition has partnered with the Elon Poll to do some polling of public attitudes of open government and the public’s knowledge. One of the things we’ve seen is there’s a drop in knowledge about the right to know. Fewer people know they have that right to know than they did five years ago... But one thing we do find in our polling is the public overwhelmingly supports the idea that they should be able to have access to public information.
DTH: What accounts for the drop in knowledge about the public’s “right to know”?
JJ: With the changing media landscape and with fewer and fewer investigative reporters, it’s harder for news outlets to do investigative stories that highlight that right to know. Also, the way we teach civics education contributes. There are some folks that do a really good job of teaching open government principles. But because open government is not a part of end of grade exams, it doesn’t end up in textbooks and often doesn’t get taught. That’s one reason we’ve developed a curriculum for civics teachers.
DTH: What state agencies lack transparency?
JJ: The agencies I’ve heard the most about from people calling me up on our hotline and asking me for help are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and we’re seeing a lot of delays out of the governor’s office.
DTH: What about the governor’s office’s records system has changed?
JJ: I don’t know enough about how the processes (have changed). What I do know is we’re seeing significant lags in what we’re seeing out of the governor’s office — records that should take a few days or a week or even months. Sometimes they aren’t even being responded to.
DTH: Journalists covering UNC-CH sometimes have to wait months or years to receive public records. Is that typical for university or higher education records?
JJ: University records do present some different questions because there is a federal privacy law that may be applicable — that’s (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act). Generally, the records held by universities aren’t that different from other government agencies.
UNC in particular has been slow to respond to records in the last few years. They’ve also used FERPA several times to deny access to records that clearly weren’t covered by FERPA. That’s why we hear complaints.
DTH: What would you like to see change about the state’s approach to public records?
JJ: North Carolina has a pretty good public records law. It’s one that pretty much, for the most part, does what its supposed to do. I do think we need greater access to personnel records. There’s still some info in personnel files we need access to.
We have an exemption for law enforcement that is very broad in N.C. that applies to closed as well as open case files. I would like to see our law change so we can have access to closed case files. A lot of police departments are beginning to wear body cameras. How those videos are treated in the public records law is being inconsistently applied from one department to another. In many cases police are saying they can’t release them even if they want to, because they’re classifying them as personnel records.
We need clarity in the law that (says) these videos should be publicly accessible.