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Legislative override strikes a blow against open government

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On Thursday, the General Assembly overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill that was designed, among other things, to restructure the State Board of Elections, returning that body to its 2017 form in the wake of a successful lawsuit brought by Cooper against the General Assembly.

Cooper vetoed the bill because it allows for the State Ethics Commission to investigate claims of campaign finance violations in secret. Under the bill, someone could file a complaint with the Ethics Commission and that body could decide whether to investigate all without letting the public know. The Ethics Commission could report its findings to the Board of Elections which could refer the matter to a prosecutor without telling anyone, including the complainant.

Supporters of the bill say it’s too easy for someone to make a complaint for politically motivated reasons and that even spurrilous accusations can cast a candidate or an elected official in a bad light, even if the accusations aren’t true.

Let’s apply those rules to criminal courts for a moment. A police officer could charge someone with a crime — let’s say larceny — and the accused could go to trial and be found guilty. And no one would ever know. As ridiculous as that sounds to Americans used to an open court system in which the state has to prove its case in public, it’s the criminal equivalent to the cover politicians have given themselves.

The State Board of Elections has, in recent years, proven itself to be an impartial arbiter of justice. Currently that body is looking into voting irregularities on behalf of Republican Mark Harris in the 9th Congressional District and Democrats such as Meg Scott Phipps and former Gov. Mike Easley have been the subject of investigations by the State Board of Elections.

Politics is rife with opportunities for unscrupulous people to take advantage of their position for personal gain. In some cases, people will not only bend rules, but break them outright, for an opportunity to seize that power and hang on to it once they have it.

Of course, not every elected leader should be painted with such broad strokes. There are plenty of elected leaders at the federal, state and local level who do things the right way. They may make political enemies because of how they vote, but they don’t break the rules to get a seat at the table.

Those who do — and those who are accused of doing so — should have their cases adjuticated in public. That gives those wrongfully accused of breaking the rules the chance to show the world they did nothing wrong. It gives the public the opportunity to know when rules have been broken. Secrecy in government only serves to chip away at public confidence in that institution.

Overriding the governor’s veto, in this case, is a strike against open government. No one interested in good governance should be in favor of conducting public business behind closed doors, no matter which side of the aisle they support.

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