Editorial: We, the public, are the ultimate government watchdogs

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There was a really great story in The Washington Post last week that grabbed my attention and made my heart sing. It was about the staff of the Booster Redux, the student newspaper of Pittsburg High School in Kansas, who questioned the credentials of their new principal. She resigned as a result of their story; it turned out her story didn’t check out.

My friend and former colleague, Bill Glassgow, had this to say about the story: “This is a perfect example of the free press at work. Investigative reporting is key in how the free press works. Don’t allow ANYONE to take away the free press, just because someone doesn’t agree with what they are saying. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s fake news. Honor the free press.”

Another story reported by WECT in Wilmington caught my eye last week, too. The station reported being turned away from the Social Security office on 16th Street when they tried to capture footage of President Trump and Vice President Pence’s portraits missing from the entryway in the process of investigating a viewer complaint about it.

The first person to comment on the story online called it “much ado about nothing” and suggested the station respect the privacy of the people conducting business there, saying it should “show some decorum” and claimed the story didn’t serve the public.

I felt compelled to respond: “They were obligated, on behalf of their viewers, to investigate that complaint. (Nevermind that if they didn’t, said viewers might then turn around and accuse this news outlet as being anti-Trump or ‘liberal media.’)

“When an agency that receives our taxpayer dollars fails to follow the law, it is, in fact, worth reporting — regardless of whether you care about it or whether it meets your standard of decorum. That’s how it serves the public. It’s not asking too much to expect law enforcement officers at every level to know and follow the laws they are charged with enforcing. Much ado about nothing? No. Watchdog reporting? Not on a grand scale, but yes.”

Others chimed in, mostly with similar sentiments. Someone else brought up another important point I failed to make in my response: there is no expectation of privacy in a public place.

There are other efforts under way at the legislative level to increase access to public records and maintain government transparency.

For instance, Sen. Bill Cook, a Republican from Beaufort County, filed Senate Bill 77 on Feb. 14 to make it a Class 3 misdemeanor to deny access to public records or violate the state’s open meetings laws. The bill, cosponsored by Republican Sen. Norm Sanderson of Pamlico County, passed first reading the next day and was referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate, where it could remain in limbo, unfortunately for you and me. Remember: The Freedom of Information Act is for everyone, not just journalists.

Last week, concurrent bills were filed in the House and Senate to continue requiring governments to publish legal notices in newspapers — a requirement Republican Sens. Trudy Wade of Greensboro, Wesley Meredith of Fayetteville and Dan Bishop of Charlotte are seeking to do away with.

I was reminded about a statement our former Republican Rep. Bonner Stiller of Southport made about giving local governments the choice to suspend notice publication to the public through newspapers. He said it would “create havoc” for free press rights every time a newspaper criticized the government.

The bills Republican Rep. Stephen Ross of Burlington and Sen. Sanderson (I’m starting to really like that guy) filed are modeled after one Florida’s legislature passed in 2012. The North Carolina Press Association — of which I’m a member — says they continue the requirement that legal notices be published in newspapers of general, paid circulation and adds the requirement that newspapers taking legal ads also publish the notices on their websites and upload them to the NCPA-operated statewide website.

That way, they can be distributed far beyond the reach of any government-operated website while still reaching citizens in areas without Internet service (such places do still exist in our state), those unable to afford Internet service and those disinclined to read notices on government websites.

Makes sense to me.

An aside: I think it’s pathetic we North Carolina citizens can get public records more quickly, easily and thoroughly from Florida’s government than our own.

The bill sponsored primarily by Wade purports to support education by directing 50 percent of all fees collected by local governments for legal notices to be spent on local teacher salary supplements, it actually seeks to keep us less educated about the issues that affect us by restricting the publication of public notices in newspapers.

It’s another attempt to make newspaper publication optional for government agencies, thereby hiding their activities.

It’s counting on members of the public to be too busy to click through multiple links on government websites or too frustrated to navigate them successfully.

It would be a great way for property owners to be blindsided by rezoning, for instance. “Oh, didn’t you see it posted on our website?” a government spokesman might say to someone who asked when notice was given — and found out about a change too late to weigh in on it.

Well, it’s not too late to support House Bill 572 and SB 435 right now.

The ultimate watchdog, after all, is the public eye. I’m proud to do my part as a journalist to keep its vision clear.

Jackie Torok is managing editor of the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or editor@brunswickbeacon.com.