Archives

Sunshine and the state

by Kirk Ross

Sunshine and the state

The memory of the first time I sat alone in a conference room with a notepad and a stack of freshly released documents is still with me. There was a needle in the haystack, but what it was and where was anybody’s guess. It took a couple of hours and several pages of notes before the next-to-last piece of paper in the stack revealed an elaborate plan by a state contractor and a state agency to mislead the public and pit environmental groups from different geographical areas against each other.

The issue was the site selection of a low-level radioactive waste dump and the memo I found started with the phrase “In order to maintain the appearance of an open selection process.” (Ever since, in similar circumstances I turn the stack over and start at the bottom.)

Over the days that followed, several reporters plowed through that stack of documents, accessible only after a hard-fought lawsuit in which the state tried hide what it was doing by saying the records belonged not to the people, but to private contractors the state had hired.

As more documents were released, we learned not only of the shenanigans regarding the site announcements, but that reporters were being spied on and public officials leaned on – and that was just what was written down.

You know the rest; apologies and resignations followed, public trust was obliterated and the process of siting that dump never really recovered.

This is Sunshine Week-the week when news organizations take a moment to acknowledge the greatest arrow the free press has in its quiver: Daylight. And, as reported each year, throughout North Carolina there are stories that obfuscation, deceit and obstinacy are still tools that some entrusted by the people choose to use rather than give up information that rightly belongs to the public. Not everything sought will yield an earth-shaking story, but the principle that government should conduct its business in the open is worth fighting for under any circumstance and at any level of government.

Requiem for a referendum

It was an event made for talk show hosts, budding evangelists and gubernatorial candidates alike. And it was well funded thanks to the donations of hard working church-going types to tax exempt religious charities out to amend the state constitution.

And the ink was barely dry on the freshly-introduced Senate Bill 13 – the Mighty Sword Act of 2007-when Sen. Fred Smith (R-Johnston), a co-sponsor, addressed the crowd of thousands who had assembled at the capital to sway the state from an unrighteous path. And Smith, in a hurry to lock in the holy voters in his bid for the GOP nomination for governor, gave the crowd plenty of red meat.

And shortly after everyone climbed back into their activity buses and blew town, the leadership of the House and Senate issued the following statement: “Not.”

And Senate Bill 13 did not go gently into that good night. No, it went abruptly to a much darker place – the Senate Ways & Means Committee, which has not met in six years.

Just shy of Ahnold

Gov. Mike Easley didn’t gain any home state edge from UNC political scientist Thad Beyle in the latest governor power rankings. Beyle used a mix of factors like tenure, the makeup of legislatures and veto and budget rules to come up with the rankings. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick topped the list with a score of 4.3 followed by a cluster of mostly Eastern Seaboard states. Patrick’s neighbor, Vermont’s Jim Douglas, was at the bottom with 2.1; California Gov. Schwarzenegger drew a 3.1 and Easley joined the cluster in the basement with 2.9.

Jeanne Lucas, 71

The first African-American woman to hold the title of state Senator, Jeanne Lucas wore the title well. Lucas, who died last week after a long battle with breast cancer, was first appointed to the senate in 1993 after a 36-year career as an educator. In seven terms she never forgot her years in the classroom and worked to make the state live up to its ideals in education.

Her wake will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 16, at Union Baptist Church in Durham, and a memorial service will be held at noon Saturday, March 17, at the same location.

Kirk Ross travels the state for CapeFearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileOnJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com. There was a needle in the haystack, but what it was and where was anybody’s guess. It took a couple of hours and several pages of notes before the next-to-last piece of paper in the stack revealed an elaborate plan by a state contractor and a state agency to mislead the public and pit environmental groups from different geographical areas against each other.

The issue was the site selection of a low-level radioactive waste dump and the memo I found started with the phrase “In order to maintain the appearance of an open selection process.” (Ever since, in similar circumstances I turn the stack over and start at the bottom.)

Over the days that followed, several reporters plowed through that stack of documents, accessible only after a hard-fought lawsuit in which the state tried hide what it was doing by saying the records belonged not to the people, but to private contractors the state had hired.

As more documents were released, we learned not only of the shenanigans regarding the site announcements, but that reporters were being spied on and public officials leaned on – and that was just what was written down.

You know the rest; apologies and resignations followed, public trust was obliterated and the process of siting that dump never really recovered.

This is Sunshine Week-the week when news organizations take a moment to acknowledge the greatest arrow the free press has in its quiver: Daylight. And, as reported each year, throughout North Carolina there are stories that obfuscation, deceit and obstinacy are still tools that some entrusted by the people choose to use rather than give up information that rightly belongs to the public. Not everything sought will yield an earth-shaking story, but the principle that government should conduct its business in the open is worth fighting for under any circumstance and at any level of government.

Requiem for a referendum

It was an event made for talk show hosts, budding evangelists and gubernatorial candidates alike. And it was well funded thanks to the donations of hard working church-going types to tax exempt religious charities out to amend the state constitution.

And the ink was barely dry on the freshly-introduced Senate Bill 13 – the Mighty Sword Act of 2007-when Sen. Fred Smith (R-Johnston), a co-sponsor, addressed the crowd of thousands who had assembled at the capital to sway the state from an unrighteous path. And Smith, in a hurry to lock in the holy voters in his bid for the GOP nomination for governor, gave the crowd plenty of red meat.

And shortly after everyone climbed back into their activity buses and blew town, the leadership of the House and Senate issued the following statement: “Not.”

And Senate Bill 13 did not go gently into that good night. No, it went abruptly to a much darker place – the Senate Ways & Means Committee, which has not met in six years.

Just shy of Ahnold

Gov. Mike Easley didn’t gain any home state edge from UNC political scientist Thad Beyle in the latest governor power rankings. Beyle used a mix of factors like tenure, the makeup of legislatures and veto and budget rules to come up with the rankings. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick topped the list with a score of 4.3 followed by a cluster of mostly Eastern Seaboard states. Patrick’s neighbor, Vermont’s Jim Douglas, was at the bottom with 2.1; California Gov. Schwarzenegger drew a 3.1 and Easley joined the cluster in the basement with 2.9.

Jeanne Lucas, 71

The first African-American woman to hold the title of state Senator, Jeanne Lucas wore the title well. Lucas, who died last week after a long battle with breast cancer, was first appointed to the senate in 1993 after a 36-year career as an educator. In seven terms she never forgot her years in the classroom and worked to make the state live up to its ideals in education.

Her wake will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 16, at Union Baptist Church in Durham, and a memorial service will be held at noon Saturday, March 17, at the same location.

Kirk Ross travels the state for CapeFearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileOnJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com.

Share: