A letter being sent to all legislators in response to the changes to NC's Public Records
Dear Members of the North Carolina General Assembly,
We, the undersigned organizations dedicated to upholding transparency and accountability in government, write to express our deep concern regarding a recent change to the public records laws of North Carolina, as outlined in Section 27.9 of the 2023 Appropriations Act (HB 259). This amendment grants broad discretion to custodians within the NC General Assembly to determine what qualifies as a "public record." It grants them the authority to destroy documents they deem not public records. We believe this amendment poses a significant threat to the principles of open government, accountability, and transparency vital to a functioning democracy.
As organizations committed to fostering an informed citizenry and ensuring that government actions are subject to public scrutiny, we believe the ability to access public records is fundamental. Public records provide valuable insights into the legislative process, government decision-making, and the actions of elected officials. They are the cornerstone of government transparency, allowing citizens to hold their representatives accountable and make informed decisions about their governance.
The newly introduced amendment grants custodians the power to determine what constitutes a public record and allows for the destruction of records that could otherwise be essential for transparency and accountability. This change effectively creates a situation in which state lawmakers, who are also considered custodians of their records, could exempt themselves from public records law, denying citizens their right to scrutinize their government's actions.
We acknowledge that valid exemptions and safeguards are in place to protect sensitive information, such as personnel records, from public records requests. However, this amendment goes beyond safeguarding legitimate concerns and threatens to undermine the principles of transparency that North Carolina's public records laws were designed to uphold.
Considering the recent unanimous decision in the dispute between WBTV and city officials, which reaffirmed the importance of the Public Records Act in ensuring accountability, it is more critical than ever to protect and strengthen the right of citizens to access government records.
We respectfully urge the North Carolina General Assembly to reconsider and rescind Section 27.9 of the 2023 Appropriations Act. Instead, we encourage you to prioritize measures that enhance government transparency and accountability. Strengthening the right to access public records is not only in the best interest of the citizens of North Carolina but also crucial for maintaining trust in government institutions.
We believe that by promoting greater transparency, the General Assembly can demonstrate its commitment to serving the public interest and upholding the democratic principles upon which our state and nation were founded.
Thank you for your attention to this matter, and we look forward to your response.
North Carolina Press Association
SECTION 27.7.(e) Article 17 of Chapter 120 of the General Statutes is amended by adding two new sections to read:
§ 120‑135. Legislator is custodian of documents.
(a) Each legislator, while in office and after leaving office, shall be the custodian of all documents, supporting documents, drafting requests, and information requests made or received by that legislator while a legislator.
(b) A legislator, while in office or after leaving office, shall not be required to reveal or to consent to reveal any document, supporting document, drafting request, or information request made or received by that legislator while a legislator.
§ 120‑137. Legislative privilege.
Nothing in this Chapter nor in Chapter 132 of the General Statutes shall be construed as a waiver of the common law of legislative privilege or legislative immunity by a legislator or former legislator. A legislator or former legislator may assert the common law of legislative privilege or the common law of legislative immunity in all instances.
SECTION 27.7.(f) G.S. 132‑1 is amended by adding a new subsection to read:
(c) Article 17 of Chapter 120 of the General Statutes shall govern all records and information of the legislative branch which shall be exempt from this Chapter, including documents as defined by G.S. 120‑129.
SECTION 27.7.(g) G.S. 132‑1.1(a) reads as rewritten:
(a) Confidential Communications. – Public records, as defined in G.S. 132‑1, shall not include written communications (and copies thereof) to any public board, council, commission or other governmental body of the State or of any county, municipality or other political subdivision or unit of
government, government made within the scope of the attorney‑client relationship by any attorney‑at‑law serving any such governmental body, concerning any claim against or on behalf of the governmental body or the governmental entity for which such body acts, or concerning the prosecution, defense, settlement or litigation of any judicial action, or any administrative or other type of proceeding to which the governmental body is a party or by which it is or may be directly affected. Such written communication and copies thereof shall not be open to public inspection, examination or copying unless specifically made public by the governmental body receiving such written communications; provided, however, that such written communications and copies thereof shall become public records as defined in G.S. 132‑1 three years from the date such communication was received by such public board, council, commission or other governmental body.communications.
"While lawmakers are no longer required to adhere to public records laws, my office notified the press that we will continue to operate within the spirit of public records laws and provide transparency in our work on behalf of the people."
Senator Dan Blue - NC Senate Democratic Leader Representing SD 14, Wake County and North Carolina.