Good government requires sunshine | Eastern North Carolina Now

    What is the Sunshine Law? Every State has a Sunshine Law that provides public access to public records, public meeting minutes, and open meetings. The law allows for transparency in government and non-profit organizations. By "transparency" we mean that, like looking through a window at what is going on inside, the actions of a public entity should be clearly visible. That means not only the decisions, but also how those decisions were arrived at.

    Requests for information are sometimes viewed by the public entity as an inconvenience or unwanted intrusion. But the law makes it their duty to be transparent. Failure to respond in a timely manner to public information requests tends to cause red flags.

    How important is the Sunshine Law? It probably wouldn't be important if everything was crystal clear and all public officials and entities were honest with nothing to hide. When the windows in our home become cloudy and dusty, we break out the Windex and start cleaning. Well I compare the Sunshine Law to Windex. All it takes is a little elbow grease to bring clarity to an otherwise murky situation.

    Who uses the Sunshine Law? While journalists are the most frequent users, many authors and researchers take advantage of it to request materials to not only verify information, but also to clarify their work. With the aid of the Internet the general public is realizing the importance of being informed. Whether it be the Internet, TV, newspapers or radio, the public is entitled to know and understand if decisions made behind closed doors will have an impact on their lives.

    Although there should be nothing to hide in performing the public's business, the operation and administration of public entities and non-profits are prone to secrecy. So much so, that the Federal Government held numerous hearings and concluded that regulations needed to be strengthened.

    Having operated a non-profit organization years ago, I have an appreciation for the time spent by staff going through files and documents and copying the materials. But if your organization fails to cooperate, consequences are sure to follow. Today's organized electronic file storage systems make it much easier to meet compliance regulations. It takes less effort to access public records and is more efficient for an agency to achieve transparency.

    During late 2003 and into 2004 concerns about the financial status of the Hospital prompted two County commissioners to make requests to Beaufort County Hospital for copies of public records and documents. These requests were not granted. In fact, at the April 2004 meeting the Hospital Board of Trustees unanimously voted for a change in policy - "any request for copies of hospital public records are available for inspection (and copying if desired) during usual business hours at the hospital only." It is apparent the attempt was to make it as difficult as possible for someone to get access to the records.

    This persisted even when Beaufort County Manager Paul Spruill, on behalf of Comm. Hood Richardson, requested that minutes of the July 2004 meeting of Hospital Board of Trustees be sent to him. In a letter dated Sept. 7, 2004, Bill Bedsole, CEO, replied that he was unable to comply with Mr. Spruill's telephone request. He explained that the Hospital Board adopted this policy as a result of numerous requests from two (County) commissioners. Bedsole said that aside from creating an unreasonable burden on the hospital staff, "the requests substantively represented an unwarranted intrusion into the management and business affairs of the hospital reserved exclusively to the Trustees."

    Mr. Bedsole concluded the letter with this rationale "While the July minutes, after approval by the Board, become public record, compliance with your request would require that the Board rescind the adopted policy."

    You can only wonder where the hospital would be if the information they refused to divulge had been released.

    Related, you may find this article from the News & Observer

    Betty Murphy is a volunteer researcher and writer for the Beaufort Observer. While living in Washington, DC, Ms. Murphy relied on her research skills when called upon to testify before several Congressional Oversight Committees on Family and Children's issues and legislation. She also served as a special consultant to various news media and documentary specials focusing on child support enforcement and domestic abuse. Since moving to "Little Washington" Betty has continued her volunteer work serving two terms on the Beaufort County DSS Board as well as several other committees.
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