North Carolina’s ethics commission pulled the plug this summer on an online database of public officials’ financial disclosure forms as it wrestles with questions about what information should be accessible with a click of a computer mouse.
The commission, established in 2006 after the state saw a series of public corruption scandals, decided in late August to disable a recently launched database of economic interest forms after hearing complaints from filers, especially district attorneys, about the disclosure of individuals’ addresses and contact information.
“I can see a concern,” said George Wainwright Jr., a former state Supreme Court justice from Morehead City and chair of the N.C. Ethics Commission. “We’re in a totally different world today.”
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Wainwright, who emphasized that the commission was still evaluating what to do, couldn’t estimate when a final decision would be made, but anticipated it would be discussed at the commissions Nov. 14 public meeting in Raleigh.
The commission oversees the annual filings of approximately 7,000 statements of economic interest filed by elected officials, state employees in decision-making roles and those appointed to serve on state boards and commission.
These conflict-of-interest forms (click here to see an example) require public officials to detail where their household income comes from, where they own property, groups they have leadership roles in and list financial interests like companies that they own more than $10,000 in stock.
Open government groups say they hope to see the online database of ethics forms revived soon, to allow the public the ability to examine any conflicts of interest that their public officials may have.
“Less transparency is not a good thing,” said Bob Phillips, of Common Cause North Carolina. “We were behind the times a bit in having things available and accessible to the public.”
Ethics commission staff initially halted the online database after realizing some confidential forms that named filers’ underage children were inadvertently uploaded to the ethics database. Staff were concerned it would be a pervasive issue, but soon discovered that it had only happened in a handful of cases, said Perry Newson, the Ethics Commission director.
Then, the commission began hearing from filers concerned that the online format of the public forms disclosed the home addresses and phone numbers of people in public safety positions, including elected district attorneys.
Previously, those members of the public interested in seeing the forms had to request copies in person or through email from ethics commission staff.
“It really struck a nerve,” Newson said.
The Ethics Commission is seeking comments from the public through the end of this week about what information on statements of economic interest should be included in any searchable databases.
The agency responded to approximately 100 requests to view statements of economic interest this year, and has seen an uptick in requests as the November mid-term elections approach, Newson said.
The online database allowed people to do their own research, and freed up ethics commission staff to attend to other tasks, he said.
“It would reduce the burden on staff,” Newson said.
Some open government proponents say privacy concerns about disclosing addresses and phone numbers may be exaggerated.
“It’s a little bit of an overblown concern,” said Jonathan Jones, head of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, based out of Elon College in Burlington.
Jones said that much of that information – like addresses and contact information– is already accessible through other state databases on the Internet, including state voter registration databases, election filings and property records.
Law enforcement or members of the judiciary with particular privacy and safety concerns can take steps to shield some of that information, including using a post office box instead of a street address, he said.
Jones said that North Carolina, with its internationally-recognized technology industry, should be moving to making more public records accessible to the general public over the Internet, instead of scaling back efforts.
“We’re moving in a direction a lot of government information is going to be online, or should be online,” Jones said. “There’s not a whole lot of reason for them to put up that barrier.”
N.C. Policy Watch reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463, email@example.com or on Twitter at @SarahOvaska.