Transparency in government, from city hall to Capitol Hill, has never been needed more than now as the nation opens its coffers for another $1.9 trillion financial relief package, supposedly to aid families and small businesses devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is particularly fortuitous that this new financial initiative using taxpayer funds coincides with the national news media’s Sunshine Week.
Celebrated the third week of March, this year March 15-21, Sunshine Week focuses on the need for transparency in government actions and decisions, thereby strengthening our unique democratic republic and assuring confidence in the system. And though it is often seen as a one- way responsibility on the part of government, it should also embolden the public to be involved and inquiring about government actions.
Fortunately, Carteret County’s two state legislators, House Representative Pat McElraft and Senator Norman Sanderson, continue to support open government and have pushed aggressively for more transparency.
Rep. Pat McElraft, a Republican representing N.C. House District 13, Carteret and Jones Counties, has consistently championed the need for the public’s right to know through government notices in the public venue. She recently refused to sign H.B. 51, a local bill which authorizes select county governments to become the sole distributor of public notices using county websites. She argues that this will do more to hide the notices from public view since many people either don’t have computer services to read the notices, nor will they be enticed to ferret out public notices from what is described as a less than user-friendly website. She continues to support distribution through third party vendors, currently print newspapers and their websites, contending that this is where citizens are both most comfortable and most confident.
N.C. Senator Norman Sanderson, a Republican representative for District 2, Carteret, Craven and Pamlico counties, has also stood against allowing county or municipal governments taking charge of public notice distribution. But he is going one step further in promoting transparency in government actions.
This week he will introduce S.B. 344 which allows for more public scrutiny of state personnel records. Sen. Sanderson contends that public employees are just that, employees of the public, and as such their work performance should be accessible to the employer, which is obviously the public.
The title of the bill “Act to Strengthen Confidence in Government by Increasing Accessibility to Public Personnel Hiring, Firing, Performance Records and other Government Records and Meetings,” is noteworthy. Sen. Sanderson sees the value and need to increase credibility and his bill is designed to do just that by creating transparency in professional performance of state personnel. The key here is that the bill is seeking transparency on professional performance only.
His bill is predicated on the idea that the public should want to know how state employees are performing and that is the flip side of “Sunshine” in government. The public should make the effort to be concerned and engaged otherwise government feels emboldened and permitted to do as it wishes which ultimately results in public cynicism and distrust.
As the state, counties and municipalities receive hundreds of millions of federal dollars, it is imperative that we, the taxpayers, insist on transparency. We need to know how and when these federal funds are used because in the end the money is OUR MONEY and government offices are OUR OFFICES.
This week is Sunshine week. It is a week to remind our government office holders - local, state and national- that they work for the public and that the public has a right and need to know what actions are taking place. And access to this information should not be controlled by the very agencies responsible for providing the information.
Fortunately, Rep. McElraft and Sen. Sanderson understand the value of transparency in government at every level and for this we should be grateful. But it is incumbent for the public to participate by attending government meetings and asking questions. Sunshine in government is only effective if it used to make our communities, state and nation more responsive and productive.