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The Voice of the Black Community

State & National

Right to know shifts as legislature changes N.C. disclosure laws
Changes in what government may or may not tell you
 
Published Thursday, August 14, 2014 12:17 pm
by Jon Elliston, Carolina Public Press

How much are North Carolina’s citizens allowed to know about the government and corporate operations that could affect their daily lives? A slew of new state legislation addressed key parts of that question, with varying results.

Below is a summary of the major changes in the state’s public records provisions enacted during the N.C. General Assembly’s recent short session. Also included are details about how some records-related proposals advanced in the lawmaking process but were ultimately derailed, at least for now.

Penalties for disclosing mix of fracking chemicals

As the legislature cleared the way for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to harvest natural gas in North Carolina, it also passed a law that makes it a crime to disclose the mix of chemicals used in the process here.

Such information, the new law says, is a trade secret, and revealing the specifics about ingredients in fracking fluid used in North Carolina can lead to a misdemeanor charge. In the initially proposed version of the legislation, disclosing the mix was defined as a felony offense, but that was scaled back.

The law includes an exemption that would allow emergency response personnel to be informed of the fluid’s composition in the event they need it.

Charter school employee pay will remain public

Early in the short session, a bill focused on charter schools said that salary information at the schools would become confidential, even when the schools receive public funding.

After Gov. Pat McCrory said he would veto a bill with that provision, the language was changed to say that such information is subject to the state’s Public Records Act, and McCrory signed the measure into law last week.

Investigations of farms’ environmental violations become confidential

Last year, the General Assembly passed a law shielding information about the owners of agricultural facilities where state agencies find problems with animal health. This summer, it made many records about investigations of environmental problems at farms confidential.

The new law allows the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources to release such information if violations are found.

Some military base closing data now under wraps

The Military Lands Protection Act, which became state law last month, removes some state records about military base closings from public access until the debate over their closure is completed.

The records in question deal with potential closures under the federal government’s Base Realignment and Closure program. Backers of the law said it was needed to keep other states from knowing what N.C. officials are doing to lobby for maintaining the state’s existing bases.

Campaign finance reporting will shift online in 2017

Campaign finance reports submitted to the state Board of Elections offer a wealth of data on which individuals and organizations are backing candidates for public office, including challengers and incumbents. But the process of making the documents publicly available can be cumbersome, with candidates submitting paper forms that are then digitized and placed online.

A new state law directs the BOE to institute an electronic filing system for these documents, starting in 2017, which could speed public access to this crucial set of records.

Push to regulate publishing of mug shots stalls and is referred for study

Several lawmakers, including Buncombe County Reps. Tim Moffitt and Nathan Ramsey, introduced bills that sought to regulate or eliminate the publication of post-arrest photographs, commonly known as mug shots.

At present, those photos are public records — whether or not the person in the picture has been convicted of a crime — and sometimes they’re posted to websites that charge a fee to have them removed, which critics call a predatory operation. A recent in-depth report by Raleigh TV station WRAL explored the issue.

For the time being, no ban has been passed, and the legislature has tasked two state agencies, the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Department of Public Safety, with studying the matter and issuing reports on it by the end of this year.

Jon Elliston is the Investigations and Open Government Editor at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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