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Happy Sunshine Week from behind the (freedom of information) battle lines

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By Caroline Curran, Reporter

Is it really that time of year again? My, how times flies.

It’s Sunshine Week. Besides being my favorite time of the year, Sunshine Week is a week each year created to celebrate freedom of information and your right to know.

Started (suitably) by a group of news editors in Florida in 2002, Sunshine Week was taken over by the National Society of News Editors in 2003, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This week, hundreds of news organizations and community groups celebrate the public’s right to know during the weeklong celebration.

For me, it’s my baby. This is the fourth year the Beacon has participated in Sunshine Week. Each year, I personally strive to bring to you the most relevant and comprehensive information you need to be an informed citizen.

I also like to show you what your government’s been up to.

This year is no exception. But I wanted to do something a little bit different; a little more user-friendly. This year’s Sunshine Week edition of the Beacon is one to keep.

It’s a road map of sorts guiding you through the often-convoluted halls of government.

Plus, it’s been a cold, dreary winter for us and we can all use a little sunshine.

In the spirit of Sunshine Week, I thought I’d share with you a little advice—some tips from a been-there-done-that reporter.

Here are a few of my favorite, can’t-live-without, public information websites.

No. 1 is PACER, or Public Access to Electronic Records, which is the database for the federal court system.

On PACER, which is a subscription-based site, but worth every penny, you can find docket information for the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. District Courts, U.S. Courts of Appeals and U.S. Bankruptcy Courts.

For a legal affairs reporter working on a big story, PACER is as good as it gets. Remember when former Brunswick County Sheriff Ronald Hewett was charged with federal obstruction of justice?

We broke that story on a Saturday morning in May 2008 when I was in the office working on another story when I thought I’d just check PACER for good measure.

Like I said, it’s my No. 1 recommendation, but it’s best if you’re seeking out specific information, not just mulling around the web.

It can be found at www.pacer.gov.

I realize most of you aren’t seeking out indictments on public officials, so there are many more great and probably more pertinent sites I’d recommend.

One go-to site bookmarked on my computer is www.ncleg.net, the state’s General Assembly site.

If you go to the far right side of the screen, you’ll find all of North Carolina’s General Statutes listed under the shortcuts, which is why I find the site so handy.

Opensecrets.org and opencongress.org are really great sites for tracking money, votes and all things Congress.

I also spend a lot of time mining through campaign finance reports, especially during a heated election, when I find this a particularly fun task. Campaign finance reports for state candidates can be found online at www.sboe.state.nc.us.

Federal campaign finance reports (where you find the really good stuff) for presidential, U.S. House and U.S. Senate candidates can be found online at www.fec.gov.

Brunswick County’s campaign finance reports aren’t available online yet, so you have to go visit the Brunswick County Board of Elections in Building H face-to-face to get what you’re looking for there.

Plenty more information is available within the pages of this week’s Beacon. The goal of this project is to arm you, the citizen, with the tools you need to be a well-informed citizen to fight for freedom of information and access to government.

Remember, it’s yours for the taking.