Farm complaint secrecy is wrong

Aug. 09, 2014 @ 08:57 AM

This editorial appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal

A provision in the N.C. Farm Act of 2014 passed by the legislature will shield complaints made against farming operations from public view, effectively exempting them from state open records laws. This is wrong.

We appreciate farmers and the food they provide for us. But, especially as large farming operations edge out small family farms, environmental protections are needed. And the public has a right to know how those protections are faring.

That doesn't always happen. As the Journal's Bertrand M. Gutierrez reports, some residents of Surry County say that state statutes already unfairly shield farmers from public scrutiny. They reported having trouble getting answers when they tried to discern whether fowl at chicken farm operations carried diseases. Current state law can already hinder public attempts to find out about diseases at even some of the largest chicken farm operations.

The latest provision will make it even harder to find such information. According to Section 1 of the N.C. Farm Act of 2014, or House Bill 366: "Complaints of violations . relating to an agricultural operation and all other records accumulated in conjunction with the investigation of these complaints shall be considered confidential records and may be released only by order of a court of competent jurisdiction."

Complaints and related investigation documents won't become public record unless the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources determines that a violation has occurred.

Supporters of the provision say it will deter frivolous complaints.

But Justin Quinlivan, an investigator with the Yadkin Riverkeeper, told the Journal that the provision would protect the agriculture industry from scrutiny, leave the public in the dark, and decrease citizen complaints about violations that may threaten public health and safety. He voiced another concern: The provision would give investigating agencies unfettered discretion on whether complaints even should be investigated.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, whose family is in the tree-farming business, said he wasn't sure that agricultural exemption is needed. "That for me is the key issue in this bill. There's already a criminal statute that makes it a misdemeanor to file a false report, so if somebody files a false report -- a fight going on between neighbors -- there's a way to sort that out."

Indeed. If Gov. McCrory signs this bill into law, legislators should revisit it their next session and strike the "secrecy" clause.