Democratic leaders: Our plan to reclaim the right to NC public records | Opinion

In North Carolina it has long been understood that public records are “the property of the people.” This makes sense: government officials are appointed and elected to do the public’s business. The records we create doing that work are the public’s records — your records.

Broad public access to records ensures that government is truly doing the public’s work. At base, broad government transparency underpins representative democracy.

Unfortunately, as with many things today, long-held norms can no longer be relied upon. Where in the past it was broadly understood that government officials would hand over records when asked, today we increasingly find ourselves in a time of government secrecy and closed-door dealings.

Democratic State Sen. Graig Meyer will run against Republican challenger Laura Pichardo in the November 2024 general election to represent District 23. Pichardo did not submit a photo.
Democratic State Sen. Graig Meyer will run against Republican challenger Laura Pichardo in the November 2024 general election to represent District 23. Pichardo did not submit a photo.
Rep. Pricey Harrison
Rep. Pricey Harrison

In 2023, the Republican supermajority passed a new law that exempts all state legislators from public records laws. Legislators are no longer required by law to provide their documents to the public. Worse, the new law gives them the power to destroy, or even sell, those records as they see fit.

The change also included eliminating the specific law guaranteeing public access to all records of legislative redistricting processes. Given North Carolina’s history with gerrymandering, including the recent N.C. Supreme Court ruling that allows partisan gerrymandering, the public now has even less power to stop legislators from stacking the deck in their own favor.

It may not be surprising that this public records rollback was made without committee debate or a chance to amend the language. This was legislating in the dark to keep the people in the dark.

Consequently, the Society of Professional Journalists awarded the N.C. General Assembly its annual “Black Hole Award” for “undermining the public’s right to know.”

With old norms shattered, it is time to enshrine the public’s right of access into our state constitution. On June 5, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee that government actions are public and legislators remain accountable to the people.

The proposed amendment would ensure that the people of North Carolina have a constitutional right to access information about government business. It would make clear that public records are the property of the people, not the politicians. The amendment would also require that all meetings of public bodies, whether at the state or local level, be open to the public. Any restrictions to this baseline level of transparency would need to serve a compelling public interest to be lawful.

We are asking that this amendment to the constitution be placed on the November ballot so that the people of North Carolina can have the final say as to how their government functions.

This is more than just a piece of legislation; it is a call to action for every North Carolinian who believes in the principles of transparency and accountability. And this is not a partisan pitch. In fact, the proposed amendment echoes the proposed “Sunshine Amendment” championed by current GOP Senators Ralph Hise, Brent Jackson and Buck Newton in 2011.

The time has come for North Carolinians to demand a government that works for them, not behind closed doors. We deserve leaders who are willing to be held accountable, and we must be willing to do our part to hold them to that standard. This is our chance to reclaim our right to know and ensure a government that truly serves its people.

Sen. Graig Meyer and Rep. Pricey Harrison are N.C. General Assembly members.