Open letter to the North Carolina General Assembly: Make government more transparent

Jul 10 2014

Dear General Assembly,

Until recently, there have been no written transcripts of North Carolina General Assembly sessions. We are interns leading a pilot launch of Capitol Hound, an audio and transcript database that aims to solve this problem – and create more transparency in North Carolina’s state government.

To create Capitol Hound transcripts, we rely on publicly available streaming audio recordings of legislative sessions.

Unfortunately, not every legislative session is live-streamed online. The General Assembly streams sound from the building’s press room, the House and Senate chamber, and two of the 10 committee rooms.

Important public policy discussions take place in the eight committee rooms that are not live-streamed. So, a few weeks into this summer’s General Assembly’s short session, we decided to tackle a tough challenge: Can we obtain recordings of the eight committee rooms that are not streamed?

We found out that sessions in these eight rooms are recorded but the audio is not available online. Instead, one CD is made with the recording of each committee meeting by the Sergeant-in-Arms and handed to the committee chair’s clerk.

It turned out that the quest for these CDs was a marathon, both physically and mentally. Here’s a snapshot of what it took to get them:

  • Two phone calls to the Sergeant-in-Arms. The Sergeant-in-Arms is in charge of producing committee room CDs. Two committee rooms are live-streamed because they are the biggest rooms. In order to live-stream all the rooms, the General Assembly would have to set aside a budget to outfit the eight other rooms with microphones, recording equipment, as well as connect each room to the Internet in order to live-stream online. Yet the legislative building has not been updated to the 21st century since its construction in 1963. The computers that are used in the eight non-streamed committee rooms are simply recording devices which output a single CD. The Sergeant-in-Arms referred us to the President Pro Temp’s Communication’s Office.
  • One email to the President Pro-Temp’s Office. The deputy did not understand our request for meetings that are not posted online. We reached a roadblock.
  • Five trips to the Capitol Building. After exhausting phone calls and emails, we went in person to Raleigh.
  • Conversations with 25 clerks. The clerks are the real keepers of non-broadcasted meetings. And the clerks had lots of questions for us: “Do you know it costs money to get these meetings?” “Where are you from? Are you with the press?” “How did you find out about these meetings?”
  • Twenty trips between the Legislative Office Building and the Legislative Chamber Building. Committee meetings have up to three chairs, yet only one chair’s clerk administers each meeting. There was no way for us to know in advance which clerk was in possession of the audio CD. As a result we bounced around to various offices to find the clerk with the audio CD. For one committee meeting, we would often have to go between buildings twice.
  • Requests for 10 interns. When the clerks were not in their office we found their intern: the best fetchers of CDs. These college students and recent grads work for state senators and representatives and were so helpful and willing to deal with student journalists from the Capitol Hound team.
  • Fifteen trips to Financial Services. The CD process became much easier after we befriended the wonderful and understanding Nell Casper, the financial specialist who would call ahead to clerks and give them a heads up on our request.

It was eye-opening to us that it took this much work to find out what our elected officials are talking about in committee meetings. Why does it take 37 people to find 10 audio recordings of open, public meetings?

We learned that a request for a CD is like a blue moon. Most clerks had never been asked for a copy of their CD. They did not know that there was a process to authorizing a CD to the public. “This is the blind leading the blind,” one clerk said.

We found out that one person in the North Carolina legislature has the only existing CD of an entire public committee proceeding. This person may or may not be the chair’s clerk. If anything goes wrong with the transaction of CDs between clerks, then those audio records of all votes, motions and proceedings are lost.

Finally, and most importantly: the public only has access to these proceedings by requesting a copy of the CD through the committee chair’s clerk.

The public ought to have easy access to recordings of state government sessions. The current system doesn’t provide that, because it takes many hours and a lot of dedication to obtain those recordings. And if a chairman’s clerk is the sole possessor of these CDs, what if one got lost?

In a perfect world, these records would be publicly available online. There needs to be a database of recordings for every committee meeting, accessible to clerks, legislators and, most importantly, the public. More communication within the legislature will promote bureaucratic and governmental transparency. The challenge is that this will take funding, but we think the gain in public accountability for government is well worth the cost.

Sincerely,

Josie Hollingsworth, Hrisanthi Kroi and Samantha Harrington


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