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Bill seeks open government rule violation as crime

Gary d. Robertson, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A lawmaker's effort to make it a criminal misdemeanor for an official to violate North Carolina's public records and open meetings laws faced hurdles after Senate committee members and local government lobbyists objected Tuesday.

Primary sponsor Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, said he filed his bill in response to local Alcoholic Beverage Control board meetings that had been closed to the public unlawfully and in which no minutes were kept for the public to review later.

Goolsby said there's no way to punish those who close meetings unlawfully or deny access to public records. Current law directs people or media outlets to sue government officials in civil court to get a judge's ruling that the open government law was broken. But often members of the public don't have the resources to litigate, he said.

The bill would make any elected or appointed office holder who willfully denies access to public records or violates open meetings laws guilty of the lowest-grade misdemeanor. That's punishable by community service on a first offense to a maximum of 20 days in jail after five or more convictions.

"This is the public's record. This is a public meeting and when you close the meeting down and or deny the public record there should be a requirement — something on the officials who do that rather than just saying, 'we're just going to let you file a lawsuit,'" Goolsby said.

Several senators spoke against the bill in its current form, saying it was too harsh a judgment upon officials who try to carry out open government laws that are full of exceptions and may require judgments on what's open to inspection or confidential. Many officials follow the advice of a board or commission attorney.

The committee didn't take a vote and it's unclear what the next step would be for the bill beyond the discussion attended by about half the senators on the panel. The bill's future may brighten because the other primary sponsor is Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson and chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee.

Many local governments often don't have the resources to respond to increasing numbers of public records requests, said Sen. Pete Brunsetter, R-Forsyth, a critic of the bill. The city of Greensboro, for example, has received 104 more requests during the current fiscal year compared to all of the previous fiscal year that ended last June 30, said city spokesman Donnie Turlington.

"Increasingly what they're dealing with are large-scale fishing expeditions," Brunstetter said, adding that the bill's result could be that when officials make a judgment call "that dissatisfies somebody, they're dealing with a criminal charge." Paul Meyer with the North Carolina League of Municipalities said this type of a proposal "will slow down the release of records" and "it will likely drive up costs" for governments.

John Bussian, an attorney representing the North Carolina Press Association, told the committee that district attorneys would have discretion to prosecute local officials. He said the bill is aimed at public officials who repeatedly deny access to records and meetings that are clearly required to be open.

Nineteen states make criminal penalties available for public records law violators and 21 states offer them for breaking open meetings laws, according to a document distributed by Bussian.

"It's a big deal because the current system we have doesn't work," Bussian said. "Nothing short of criminal penalties really works."

Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, suggested encouraging compliance with the open government laws through other methods. A government official, for example, always could be required to cite the exception they're using to deny access to records, Clodfelter said. Investigative records and public security documents, for example, are subject to confidentiality.

Media outlets often already seek such an explanation in their written records request.