I suspect in a lot of newsrooms there’s a good bit of groaning as Sunshine Week nears. We know the message is important — open government is the cornerstone of democracy — but how do you build a captivating news story out of that?
In late 2009, after the umpteenth time I had banged my head against the brick wall known as North Carolina’s Personnel Law, it dawned on me that Sunshine Week could be a vehicle for meaningful reform. As a reporter for The (Raleigh) News & Observer, I would draw a bead on a law that allowed public employee misconduct to remain secret, kept patronage and nepotism in the shadows, and hid undeserved raises and perks. I would show that North Carolina was an outlier in keeping much of this information under wraps.
With Sunshine Week, my three-part series, Keeping Secrets, could do more than just trot out the harm and waste concealed in a flawed law. I could make the series (which included invaluable data work from my colleague David Raynor) available to news media across North Carolina. That gave me the clout to persuade many lawmakers to tell their constituents what they thought of the law through a questionnaire on SurveyMonkey.
Elon University’s Sunshine Center helped with the survey, and its Open Government Coalition distributed the series to members. Newspapers from across the state ran all or parts of it. The statewide Time Warner (now Spectrum News) cable channel ran the series on its website and had me on for a segment promoting it.
Suddenly, an issue that had been on no lawmaker’s agenda had sponsors for reform on both sides of the aisle. I covered nearly every step of the legislation — at one point it nearly died in the state House — while exposing more examples of how this law protected the bad behavior of public employees. In the closing hours of the session, lawmakers adopted reforms that require state and local governments to write dismissal letters that explained a firing, and had to be made public upon request; made all suspensions and demotions public; and required disclosure of pay and position histories.
These reforms have served the public well over the years. We soon used the new law to obtain the state treasurer’s pay database for nearly every state and local employee. (The treasurer’s office has this information to calculate pensions, and it includes additional compensation such as overtime, bonuses and unused vacation.) The series we wrote in 2013 based on that data exposed pension spiking among some community college presidents that prompted another state reform. The series also showed high salaries and bonuses in little-seen corners of government.
Meanwhile, the access to disciplinary actions has prevented state and local agencies from hiding serious misconduct. In 2014, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a detailed investigation into what some experts have called the worst academic scandal in NCAA history — 18 years of sham classes involving 3,100 students, nearly half of them athletes — but the chancellor wouldn’t disclose the names of several employees who had been found culpable and were in the process of being dismissed.
The local news media banded together and filed a lawsuit. UNC eventually released the dismissal information. It showed a former faculty leader was among those in trouble, and she resigned while disputing the case against her.
So, as this Sunshine Week comes to a close, I urge reporters and editors to get a head start on next year. Find the holes in your public records and open meetings laws. Dig for the details that show how the public suffers from this lack of disclosure. Ask your representatives if they think the status quo is just fine. And when possible, work with your competitors to get the story out.
Sunshine Week isn’t just a platform to tell the public how important open government is to their lives. It’s an opportunity to prove it.
Dan Kane is a staff writer for The (Raleigh, North Carolina) News & Observer.