EDITORIAL: A hero stands up for transparency

Mar. 05, 2014 @ 03:16 PM

When Republicans assumed control of state government in North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory led the rallying cry for a more open, transparent government.

What we’ve seen, of course, is just the opposite. Echoing, ironically, the actions of the president they so detest (President Obama made similar promises about openness, with similar subsequent stumblings and failures), the Republicans in Raleigh have worked hard to close off the public to their work and put even more decision-making behind doors. But thankfully, there are legislators who care about transparency, openness and the public’s right to know — and one star among them is a Republican.

Last week, Rep. Marilyn Avila, a Wake County member of the N.C. House, was recognized by the North Carolina Press Association with its Lassiter Award. The Lassiter (named for Bill Lassiter, the late general counsel for the association) is given to a non-journalist who works to promote open government, openness and other protections.

During the association’s annual awards ceremony in Chapel Hill, Rep. Avila received an ovation from the more than 300 newspaper publishers, editors and newsroom staff who were gathered after receiving the honor. She then spoke eloquently and emotionally about the public’s right to know and about her frustrations with her own party’s shortcomings in that department — and what it was like to stand alone in that fight.

Rep. Avila was nominated by a Wake County publisher and the press association’s own First Amendment counsel for her stance on openness issues, particularly for her work in fighting legislation last year that would have allowed some North Carolina counties to post notice of public meetings online rather than in their local newspapers, as is required by state law.

“We keep talking about transparency in government, and to me, this was a move in the opposite direction,” she said.

The legislation was unusual in many regards, particularly in the manner in which it was passed. Though backed by many Republican leaders in the House and Senate, the bill had difficulty at the outset getting committee support. Ultimately, power brokers in the legislature leaned hard on the bill’s opponents, some of whom were actually encouraged to find something else to do during key committee meetings. In other words: if you’re in our party, and you don’t like this legislation, don’t show up for the vote.

You may remember the bill in question received a favorable vote in a controversial committee meeting attended by dozens of members of the press even when the voice votes seemed to indicate otherwise. The Republican presiding over that meeting, Sen. Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw, was questioned about his decision to not allow a roll call vote; the Charlotte Observer later described Tucker as having “railroaded a bill through his committee that would let government operate in more secrecy.” Minutes after the meeting ended, Sen. Tucker famously told the querying publisher: “I am the senator. You are the citizen. You need to be quiet.”

When government — at any level, whether it be from a Republican or a Democrat — takes that stance, we should be worried. But Rep. Avila was cited for her “political courage” — because she opposed her party. In doing so, however, she did the right thing. We shouldn’t need awards for keeping government open and accessible, but these days it’s the way it is. Things in Raleigh have gotten so bad that this is the first time the award has been presented since 2010.

We need more champions like Rep. Avila.