Punishment to fit crime
As we continue to celebrate Sunshine Week across the nation, North Carolina is grabbing some headlines when it comes to open government.
To recap, Sunshine Week commemorates openness with government records and meetings and, as we pointed out yesterday in this space, shows the importance of the people having the ability to keep its government accountable.
The headlines that are drawing attention to our great state stem from a bill that was filed last week in the General Assembly that would make an open meetings act violation a criminal misdemeanor. Now, there is very little punishment outside of an angry letter from the State Attorney General’s office if such a violation is committed.
Back to the bill in question.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, a New Hanover Republican, introduced the bill which received its first public hearing on Tuesday.
According to The Associated Press, the bill stems from a local Alcoholic Beverage Control board which closed its meetings to the public unlawfully and kept no minutes for public digestion.
Current state law allows citizens or the media to sue government officials in civil court and get a judicial ruling that the open government law was broken. However, that takes time and monetary resources that members of the public often do not have.
Goolsby’s argument, which is a justifiable one, is that there is no punishment to fit the crime of denying the public access to records and meetings which are intended to be public.
What draws our ire is that several senators, on Tuesday, decried the bill as being too harsh on officials “who carry try to carry out open government laws that are full of exceptions,” according to the AP report.
Senators also said that some local governments don’t have the resources to respond to an increasing number of open records requests.
We respond by saying that is why government has a timeframe and can charge a rate for fulfilling those requests.
The fact remains that there are forms of government that are open for a reason.
To us, the bill is meant to punish those members of government who repeatedly violate the open government act and deny access to records and meetings that are meant to be accessible to the public.
There is no recourse for those members of the public that have been turned away from something that, by law, is theirs for the asking.
Those that suggest criminal penalties are too harsh leave us to believe they feel there should not be any punishment for those that violate the public trust by denying the rights of the public to bring government business from behind closed doors.
That is wrong and against the law. Therefore, there should be a punishment that fits the crime.
By Matthew Clark, for the Editorial Board
The Daily Courier Editorial Board consists of community members Jerry Brewer, Kyle Bingham, Tom Padgett, Dr. Shermaine Surratt and Cliff Strassenburg as well as Editor Matthew Clark