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Digging for details and can’t get a straight answer? Curious about the goings-on in local government? Suspicious that public business might be happening in the shadows?
For Sunshine Week this year, The Wilson Times is asking its readers for news tips, story suggestions and questions about government agencies in Wilson County. We want to know what you want to know, because it’s our job to find out.
Organized by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sunshine Week is an annual celebration of the public records and open meetings laws that give citizens the right to keep tabs on their government. The 2018 observance began Sunday and continues through Saturday.
“Sunshine” is shorthand for transparency, a fitting metaphor in use long before Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote that “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
Joining hundreds of American newspapers, the Times will publish news stories, editorials, columns and cartoons about the public’s right to know this week. But we don’t think one week is enough. So we’re inviting you to put your independent local watchdog to work.
Some tips may be considered for a special investigative project that could produce front-page stories with splashy headlines, while we may find other queries can be answered with a simple phone call or visit to the appropriate agency. But no tip is too trivial and no question too big.
Share your ideas by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with “Sunshine Week” in the subject line, write us at 126 Nash St. Wilson, NC 27893 or call us at 252-265-7813. You can even send a Facebook message to the “Wilson Times Co.” page or send us a tweet by tagging @TheWilsonTimes.
PUBLIC EMPLOYEE SALARIES
In the coming days, Times journalists will be asking local governments in Wilson County to provide current wage and salary figures for their employees and elected officials. We’ll compile the information and post a public salary database on WilsonTimes.com.
That may ruffle a few feathers, but we firmly believe it’s in the public interest to know how our government employees are being compensated for their work. When paychecks come courtesy of the taxpayers, it’s only natural that accountability is part of the job description.
The information is also valuable for benchmarking against agencies in similarly sized communities. When the Wilson City Council voted itself a 37 percent raise last year, councilmen cited the 17 years that had elapsed since the last increase in board member stipends and inflation in the intervening years. Councilmen didn’t cite the disparity between Wilson’s elected official pay to that of their peers in surrounding communities, though — we later found Wilson was nearly even with Goldsboro and significantly below Rocky Mount before the raises took effect.*
Tracking public employee pay is part of our mission to keep Wilsonians informed. Check the paper in print and online for more details in the coming weeks.
SUNSHINE WEEK SILENCE
Precisely one year ago, the Times asked the Wilson City Council and Wilson County Board of Commissioners to adopt resolutions recognizing Sunshine Week. We also partnered with the Spring Hope Enterprise to make the same request of the Middlesex Board of Commissioners.
None of the three governing bodies passed the draft proclamation we submitted for consideration or even held a vote. Only the Middlesex board discussed the subject during a public meeting.
We won’t waste our breath by asking again. While we’re disappointed that elected officials declined to show support for open government, we care more about results than lip service. So long as the city, county and town comply with state sunshine laws and conduct public business in the spirit of openness, their obligations will be met.
With spring around the corner, we remain hopeful that sunshine — in both the literal and figurative sense — remains in Wilson County’s forecast.* CORRECTION, March 13 — A sentence in the original version of this editorial stating that Wilson City Council members did not compare their compensation to elected officials in surrounding communities is inaccurate and has been revised. The city council reviewed stipends for other elected bodies during a May 2016 retreat, which was open to the public. Only the rate of inflation and the 17 years since council members received a pay increase were cited as justification for the 37 percent raise during the council's regular meeting on Jan. 19, 2017. While the Times independently obtained and published city council pay policies for Rocky Mount and Goldsboro last year, the Wilson City Council had reviewed and considered that information eight months prior. The Times regrets the error.