Editorial: CFCC Ignoring Public Records Law

By / Editorials / Wednesday, 26 August 2015 04:00

By WILLARD KILLOUGH III
Managing Editor

Liza Minnelli is set to perform October 3rd with the North Carolina Symphony to open Cape Fear Community College's new taxpayer funded $40 million dollar Humanities and Fine Arts Center.
Local television station WECT submitted a public records requests to CFCC asking for the "contracts for all the upcoming performances."
CFCC spokesman David Hardin told WECT, "The performer's agency considers their negotiations, terms, and fees confidential and consider the agreement that is currently in place to be null and void if disclosed. The gala is a self-supported event funded through tickets sales and sponsorships – not state funds. The contract will be between CFCC and the performer’s agency."
Hardin couldn't point out a law that allows them to deny the request based on that confidentiality.
This sets a dangerous restrictive precedence that could be abused by any local or state agency to circumvent the public records law of
North Carolina simply by including "confidentiality" agreements in contracts for any expenditure of taxpayers' money.
And it's a shame in this day and age that in order to force government officials to adhere to the principle of "government of the people, by the people, for the people" a media organization or private citizen must pay costly expensive legal fees to seek resolution in a court of law.
That basically makes our State Public Records Law a pay-to-play system where only the wealthy can realize justice if a government agency chooses to slam the door on public transparency simply because they know it's too expensive - or will take too long - for a party to take their case to court.
Allowing CFCC to deny public access to a private entertainer's contract -
or even just the cost to hire them - could become the go-to precedent that other local governments use to hide from public scrutiny.
Spending millions of taxpayers dollars to build the facility and then holding essentially confidential privately funded functions organized by a public governmental agency who in turn hides the financial info from the taxpayers is a massive punch to the gut of the very sacred ideal of government transparency.
Government officials that support that secretive approach should be ashamed of themselves and not in a position to educate the younger generation while setting a horrible example.
Does this mean that all future acts will be able to include the same language in their contracts and CFCC will never have to let the public know how much they are spending?
A contract with an entertainer should not trump State Law. This violates the spirit, intent and letter of that law. If a private company were renting the facility there would be no problem. They either win, lose or break even. But this is a public agency paying for top dollar entertainment and claiming ticket sales will cover the expenses. We should take their word alone as proof? Absolutely not. Citizens and the media should be able to monitor government with rare exceptions and this is not one of them.
It will be interesting to see if CFCC will part with the figures following the show when it should be easily accessible and clearly stated in their budget.
While the contract negotiations with Minnelli's agent-company may very well be a "trade secret" and protected by State Law as private, the overall cost is not. Basically, if CFCC agreed to pay for an expensive hotel, high priced restaurant and all manner of expensive demands typically included in contracts for entertainers on the level of Minnelli, that's not a trade secret, it's an expense. If this becomes a common practice by local state governments, perhaps it's time for our state legislators to entertain clarifying the law. Spell it out. That's already done for a number of other very specific scenarios covering other types of information.
CFCC recently informed WECT, that ticket sales are outstanding and so far they've sold  $300,000 (taxes, fees and ticket sales) for upcoming performances at the new center.
That's great. Prove it.

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