Transparent doesn’t mean invisible

It seems like all public officials celebrate transparency, until it applies to them.

Case in point: Gov. Roy Cooper, who (years ago as attorney general) wrote the introduction to the North Carolina Guide to Open Government and Public Records for the N.C. Press Association.

“The spirit with which public officials work to comply with the law is as important as the law itself. … In other words, when in doubt about how to interpret the state’s open records and meetings laws — always work to resolve the question in favor of openness.”

Too bad the governor hasn’t practiced what the attorney general preached. (Attorney General Cooper really didn’t practice it, either, as we’ll address later.)

A recent high-profile incident occurred last week, when Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee, called on legislative leaders to open a formal investigation of Cooper’s $57.8 million side deal with the operators of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Rabon cited a report aired March 3 on WRAL News in Raleigh in which Cooper adviser Ken Eudy discussed the $57.8 million discretionary fund. The governor negotiated the deal with the regulated utilities which will run the pipeline. The money would have been handled outside the constitutional legislative process.

Eudy, speaking for the governor, blamed mean old Republicans for interfering with money that would have gone to environmental protection or economic development. He (a former Charlotte Observer reporter) — and the governor — have dodged the fundamental question about this deal: Is it legal? Does it abide by the letter and the spirit of the state Constitution?

Rabon noted that the Cooper administration provided a series of drafts of the pipeline agreement to WRAL but hasn’t given that same information to the legislature, which requested it weeks ago. Nor had the office shared it with other media outlets who asked for it, including Carolina Journal. We got our copies after making an additional request, though we first asked for public records relating to the arrangement in late January, when the administration announced the fund.

Those memo drafts are all we’ve gotten, other than an acknowledgment that the governor got our request and it’s in the works.

This latest obfuscation from the Cooper administration is nothing new. Nor did it begin when Cooper moved to the Executive Mansion in January 2017. We’ve been covering Cooper since his days in the General Assembly more than 20 years ago.

Back then, he gained and earned plaudits for being one of the architects of the state’s open meetings and public records laws.

Once he joined the executive branch in 2001 as attorney general, something changed. He became more secretive. Noelle Talley, his longtime spokeswoman, became notorious for not returning phone calls or giving only cursory email acknowledgment when she received requests for information.

The pattern has continued with Cooper as governor, as staff members rarely if ever get phone calls returned. We also have difficulty getting press releases from the governor’s office.

My goal isn’t to slam this governor. Well, not entirely. After all, his predecessors haven’t been paragons of openness either. (Although, to her credit, the much-maligned Bev Perdue was more accessible than anyone in that position since Jim Hunt.)

Pat McCrory tried and failed to charge members of the public for staff time to prepare records for public review. That’s clearly illegal, and McCrory dropped it after getting dressed down for even discussing the possibility. Our editorial staff went after McCrory for being so slow in responding to records requests from various media sites that they sued him.

We had hopes Cooper would be different when he succeeded McCrory. We hoped he would channel his inner senator and be open and transparent.

So far, no dice.

But there’s an opportunity for change. It’s Sunshine Week, after all, the American Society of Newspaper Editor’s national event in which media outlets and other government watchdogs highlight the importance of government transparency and examples of unnecessary secrecy.

Last weekend, the governor issued suggested guidelines for compliance with the open records law. Many are sensible, though they easily could go further and make North Carolina a leader in transparency.

But if the governor really wants to demonstrate his commitment to openness, he could refer to a fundamental rule any journalist — or any effective communicator, for that matter — should have memorized. It’s from the irreplaceable writing guide The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White: Show, don’t tell.

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Rick Henderson is editor-in-chief of the Carolina Journal.

Rick Henderson is editor-in-chief of the Carolina Journal.