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DHHS Secretary Wos on 'dangerous' government transparency

The news conference laying out Gov. Pat McCrory's plan for Medicaid managed care took an unexpected turn when a reporter asked about transparency.

Apparently, state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos does not like being asked for draft public documents. The state Supreme Court has ruled that drafts of public agency reports are public records.

Rose Hoban of North Carolina Health News got the whole thing started Wednesday when reminded Wos that her office deemed some of the responses to her office's request for ideas for changing Medicaid would be shielded from public view because they contained proprietary information.

"Already we're not seeing transparency," Hoban said.

Wos replied, "I think the word transparency can get pretty dangerous. Because what does transparency mean? If transparency means that we're in a planning process and you're asking us tell us, 'Tell us all the things your planning,'' well, my goodness allow us to work and then we'll give you everything that you want. But allow us the intellectual capacity just to do our job."

Morning Memo: Questions mount on MetLife incentives deal

FIVE DAYS LATER, McCRORY STILL SILENT ON ROLE IN METLIFE DEAL: Five days after the MetLife jobs announcement, Gov. Pat McCrory and the governor's office remains quiet on what role he played in luring the company even as questions mount. Consider this lead sentence from AP story Friday: "Gov. Pat McCrory avoided questions Friday about the state offering MetLife Inc. $94 million in tax breaks and other incentives to move thousands of jobs to North Carolina and using his former employer to help broker the deal." The Friday announcement was the second time in two days that McCrory dodged reporters' questions. The governor appears at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources today for a 12:30 p.m. announcement. Will he break his silence?

QUESTIONS MOUNT ABOUT THE INCENTIVES: At the same time, Charlotte area officials are raising questions about whether the incentives were even necessary to lure the company to the city, where half the 2,600 jobs will be located. On Saturday, less than 24 hours after a press conference announcing the deal, county commissioners questioned whether MetLife knew it was coming to Charlotte before commissioners on Tuesday gave preliminary approval for the incentives.

Commissioners Chairwoman Pat Cotham said questions about the timing of the incentives vote started to enter her mind when news broke that the company had picked North Carolina and media events were arranged – only two days after the commissioners voted. Later, she learned that some MetLife executives had already been picking out schools and colleges for their children. “In my opinion, the deal was done when we first learned of it and voted for incentives,” Cotham, a Democrat, wrote in her first email to commissioners on Saturday.

***Good morning and thanks for reading the Dome Morning Memo -- the source for N.C. political news and analysis. Read much more below.***

Morning Memo: GOP 'stupid party,' lawmakers may restrict access to gun records

JINDAL TO GOP: STOP BEING THE STUPID PARTY: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on Thursday night challenged fellow Republicans to “go after every voter” and cautioned them to “stop being the stupid party.”

“It’s no secret we had a number of Republicans who damaged the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments,” he told around 200 members and guests of the Republican National Committee at the Westin hotel. Jindal, considered a possible 2016 presidential candidate, said Republicans can beat Democrats on their ideas while appealing to all Americans – beyond Washington.

***Welcome to the Dome Morning Memo -- the source for N.C. politics. Click "Read More" below for more news.***

SEANC settles records lawsuit against Treasurer's Office

The state employees association announced today it has settled its lawsuit against the state Treasurer’s Office over a public records request.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina in 2007 had sought records after Forbes magazine published an article that asserted then-Treasurer Richard Moore, a Democrat, had a fundraising advantage in his campaign for governor thanks to investment managers who did or could do business with the state’s pension fund.

SEANC dropped its lawsuit and signed a settlement agreement on March 9 because current State Treasurer Janet Cowell has “sufficiently satisfied the association’s public records request,” according to its statement.

What guarantees government sunshine? A consitutional protection

North Carolina's open government laws don't hold a match to the "Sunshine Law" in Florida.

What's the biggest difference? Barbara Petersen, the president of the First Amendment Foundation in Florida, gave reporters and government officials at a panel discussion Wednesday a simple answer: It's in the Florida Constitution.

In 1992, Florida voters approved a referendum to put language guaranteeing access to public records and government meetings in the state's founding document. Petersen said it's what creates a culture of openness. Under the provisions in Section 24, the state legislature is the sole body to define what is public and open and what isn't -- which often leads to legislation closing the door on certain records. But it keeps local judges and governments from enforcing different standards, said Petersen, who spoke at Sunshine Day 2012 at Elon University. (Follow the action on Twitter @NCOpenGov.)

Open meetings and public records laws make it easier for members of the public to discover and understand their government -- and for the media to inform them about their tax dollars at work.

Sunshine on the ballot?

A House bill proposes to ask the public if access to government meetings and the ability to inspect and copy government records should be constitutional rights.

The North Carolina Press Association wants the constitutional amendment. The primary sponsors are Republican Reps. Stephen LaRoque and Tim Moore.

If it is approved, two-thirds majorities of the House and Senate would be needed to reduce public access to records or meetings.

“If this passes, the public will be guaranteed its rights and will be protected from any efforts to keep the business of government from the people," NCPA Executive Director Beth Grace said in a statement.

Open government coalition hits $500,000 mark for Sunshine Center

The N.C. Open Government Coalition now has $500,000 that it plans to use for an endowment to support its Sunshine Center.

The coalition is a nonpartisan organization that supports efforts to gain access to public meetings and records. The center hosts conferences, handles citizen calls and participates in national meetings of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, according to a news release announcing the endowment.

The center, which includes Elon University as a partner, hosts the state's annual celebration during Sunshine Week.

Disclosure time: N&O senior editor Steve Riley and Charlotte Observer editor Rick Thames are board members of the coalition.

The coalition raised $250,000 from local contributions and received a challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

"Receipt of the generous Knight Foundation grant marks the 'end of the beginning' for the Coalition," said Hugh Stevens, president of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. "Now that our supporters have laid a firm foundation for the organization, we look forward to exploring new and expanded opportunities for promoting openness at all levels of government in North Carolina."

Fundraising for the endowment began in March 2007 with a $50,000 gift from the Triangle Community Foundation. Since then more than 30 organizations and individuals have contributed.

In March of 2010, the Elon Poll found citizen awareness of open government laws was up across the state of North Carolina from 26 percent in 2007 to 46 percent today.

Biden will visit state today for fundraiser

BIG FREAKIN' VISIT: Vice President Joe Biden will be in the state briefly this afternoon for a Democratic fundraiser. (AP)

TAKING A LOOK: North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, responding to news reports about an NCAA investigation of the football team at UNC-Chapel Hill, launched an investigation Wednesday into possible improprieties by sports agents in the state. (N&O)

BIG BILL: Days before a Democratic selection panel checks out Charlotte as a site for their party's 2012 national convention, local organizers said "pursuit costs" could top $125,000. (Charlotte Observer)

OUR PHONE, THEIR TEXTS: A Wake County Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday that personal text messages sent by a state Highway Patrol employee from her personal phone to her immediate supervisor on his state-issued BlackBerry are not public records. (N&O)

PAYMENT PLAN: In a record setting year for ticket sales, the lottery collected more than $1 million from debtors who won lottery prizes. (N&O)

Lawyers argue over trooper texts

Lawyers for media organizations and the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety argued in Wake County Superior Court this morning about whether text messages, of a personal nature, received on a state-issued BlackBerry are public records.

The debate, before Judge Paul Gessner, was rooted in a lawsuit that media outlets, including The News & Observer, filed more than a week ago against the state crime control department and its top administrator, Anne Blythe reports.

The news outlets were seeking text messages that one of the state's highest-ranking state troopers received from his secretary on a state-owned BlackBerry during working hours and late at night.

In court today, Melissa Tripp, the attorney for the state agency, argued that text messages that have nothing to do with state business are not public records.

The text messages being sought were sent by Pamela Maynard, an office assistant with the state Highway Patrol, to Everett Clendenin, who until his forced resignation in mid-June was a 22-year veteran trooper who long served as the spokesman for the Highway Patrol.

"These messages, and there were many, many between Maj. Clendenin and Ms. Maynard, these messages — I don't know what you would call them, terms of endearment, affection, however you want to classify them — have nothing to do with state business."

Supreme Court overturns dismissal of SEANC's records lawsuit

The state Supreme Court has overturned the dismissal of a public records lawsuit filed by a state employees association against the State Treasurer's office.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina was looking for records from former Treasurer Richard Moore in response to a Forbes magazine article that asserted Moore's ability to choose money mangers and investment funds gave him a massive fundraising advantage.

SEANC requested records about investments and the Forbes article and complained for months that it didn't get all that it asked for. Moore's office continued to assert the request had been fulfilled. SEANC sued and a judge dismissed the case early on.

The Supreme Court decided in an opinion published last week that state officials or agencies should not be the ones to decide whether they have complied with a records request that is in dispute. Courts should make those determinations, wrote Justice Edward Thomas Brady.

Judicial review of a state agency’s compliance with a request, prior to the categorical dismissal of this type of complaint, is critical to ensuring that, as noted above, public records and information remain the property of the people of North Carolina.  Otherwise, the state agency would be permitted to police its own compliance with the Public Records Act, a practice not likely to promote these important policy goals.

The decision sends the case back to a judge.

“This ruling is a victory for state employees’ retirement security, open government and public accountability from its elected officials,” said SEANC Executive Director Dana Cope in a statement.

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