Sunshine Week highlights importance of open government

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

This is Sunshine Week, a time when newspapers and other media agencies throughout the country join together to celebrate and focus on the value of open government.

“Transparency” is the buzzword in government this year, and we wanted to know just how well government bodies that serve Brunswick County respond to open records requests.

Last year, The Brunswick Beacon put a spotlight on open meetings and open records laws by testing government agencies to see just how well they responded to requests for information. The results of that earned the Beacon the North Carolina Press Association’s Henry Lee Weathers Freedom of Information Award.

In the same spirit of last year’s efforts, long before Sunshine Week 2009 rolled around this year, the Beacon’s news staff joined together to plan out its in-depth coverage of this important topic.

This year, instead of requesting open records from government agencies and testing how they responded as we did last year, Beacon reporters requested more open records and used the results for in-depth reporting.

The results are featured on today’s front page, as well as throughout several other pages in the A section. By doing so, we found out some interesting things about federal, state, county and local governments.

Did you know your federal representatives in Congress are not bound by the Freedom of Information Act? That’s right. Even though your tax dollars are being used to fund their offices, congressional representatives are not required by law to share the same type of public information with you as our state and local elected officials are.

Who is keeping an eye on the public’s interest when current laws shield congressional officials from having to disclose how your hard-earned tax dollars are being put to work?

This year’s Sunshine Week project also uncovered some interesting information about the board of commissioners down in Calabash. By requesting copies of commissioners’ and town officials’ e-mails, we learned board members are making an effort to resolve some of the issues that have been dividing them.

They’ve recently been in communication with John Stephens, coordinator of the public resolution program at UNC-Chapel Hill, about the problems they’re facing and what they can do to resolve them.

Down in Ocean Isle Beach, we used budget and crime report information to take a closer look at the town’s police department and evaluate the services it offers. In Shallotte, public records were used to analyze the town’s break-in reports as well as to take a closer look at problems that arose from the now-defunct San Rio development.

We also had a chance to get to talk to a Brunswick County resident and find out how he used open records laws to take Oak Island town government to task, including filing a lawsuit against the town.

While we were at it, we were sure to include information about open meetings and open records so you, the average citizen, can learn more about how to put them to use for you.

All of these stories wouldn’t have been possible without the use of open records, and that’s why we’re celebrating Sunshine Week.

Remember, this is your government and you have the right to know what goes on—not just this week, but year ’round.