Editor's note: March 15 to 20 marks this year's Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of freedom of public information. In this commentary, N.C. Press Association President David Woronoff gives an assessment of our governor's stances on official openness.
The last time the North Carolina Press Association saw Gov. Beverly Perdue in person, she was a candidate who attended our 2008 summer convention in Asheville. Despite our paltry numbers on that sunny Friday, Perdue stood before us and pledged to make openness the hallmark of her administration.
Her predecessor, Mike Easley, had taken government secrecy to new lows. And since Perdue belonged to the same party and moved in the same political circles, many in the audience viewed that promise with suspicion, fearing that her pledge was designed merely to curry favor with us, not to bring a new level of transparency to state-government operations.
We were wrong. Perdue really has taken up the cause of open government. For the first time in nearly a decade, our association had the opportunity to discuss these matters with a North Carolina governor during a wide-ranging discussion in her office in the historic state Capitol recently. Joining me in talking with Perdue about a host of open-government issues were Executive Director Beth Grace, First Amendment Counsel John Bussian and Fayetteville Observer Publisher Charles Broadwell, who will serve as our organization's board president next year.
We suggested to the governor that the nearly constant refrain of abuses of power by North Carolina politicians over the past several years has given her an opportunity to create her legacy as the "open-government governor." Perdue is on her way to assuming that title, and she seemed to cotton to it. She agreed that the best way to restore the public's trust in its elected officials is by injecting a lot of transparency into the operation.
She particularly liked our Open Government Guide and Attorney General Roy Cooper's admonition to public employees that records and documents are presumed available for the public's inspection.
It was Perdue who vetoed House Bill 104, a particularly nasty piece of legislation that was designed to keep legislators' work and their correspondence related to it secret until the bill was filed. Without our even asking, Perdue dusted off her veto stamp and sent that legislation, which she believed was poor public policy, back to the House. We took the opportunity to thank the governor and congratulate her for keeping her campaign promises.
We also briefed her on our top legislative initiative, the North Carolina Open Government Act, which would provide for the automatic recovery of attorneys' fees in open-government legal disputes. Currently, judges are given discretion and rarely choose to award legal fees. Given these challenging economic times, the financial aspect of public-record fights cannot be underestimated.
This bill has already passed the House and now resides in the Senate, which has passed legislation in previous sessions. The governor liked the bill and said she would sign it if it comes to her desk.
Next on our agenda was an issue we have battled for a couple of years now: keeping legal notices in print. On this matter, Perdue didn't hesitate. She wanted those public notices where people could see them and learn what their government was doing. She was unequivocal about wanting legal notices to remain in the printed editions of newspapers.
In the end, I found the governor to be approachable and receptive to our causes. She sent each of us a handwritten note thanking us for our time and dedication to our craft. That was good politics on her part, but I felt she was sincere in her comments about the value and importance of a vibrant North Carolina newspaper industry.
Given where we've been for the last eight years, we've come a long way.
David Woronoff is publisher of The Pilot newspaper in Southern Pines, N.C., and current president of the North Carolina Press Association. Perdue vetoed House Bill 104, a particularly nasty piece of legislation designed to keep legislators' work and their correspondence related to it secret until the bill is filed.