Ashley: Better to watch making sausage

Apr. 16, 2013 @ 06:02 PM

An old and well-worn cliché has it that watching a legislative body in action is like watching sausage being made.

A couple years ago, The New York Times ran a delightful article in which it talked to a group of people who take considerable umbrage at that comparison.

They weren’t legislators. They were sausage-makers.

“I’m so insulted when people say that lawmaking is like sausage making,” Stanley A. Feder, president of Simply Sausage, told The Times’ Robert Pear.

Feder’s plant in Landover, Md., Pear noted, turns out 60,000 pounds of sausage a year.

Pear’s story continued:

“‘With legislation, you can have hundreds of cooks — members of Congress, lobbyists, federal agency officials, state officials,’ Mr. Feder said. ‘In sausage making, you generally have one person, the wurstmeister, who runs the business and makes the decisions.’

“Sausages are produced according to a recipe. And while plenty of pork goes into many sausages and laws, the ingredients of the edible product are specified in advance, carefully measured out and accurately identified on a label. An inspector from the United States Department of Agriculture visits the plant every day.”

Feder and his fellow sausage manufacturers would be mortified to be compared to the legislative process I watched last week.

A bill introduced in the Senate by two first-term legislators – Trudy Wade of Greensboro and Tamara Barringer of Raleigh – seeks to exempt municipalities in their counties, and several others, from the requirement to publish public notices in newspapers of general circulation. Instead, posting notices on a government’s own website would be sufficient.

It’s a bad bill, as we argue in an editorial on the preceding page.

It’s also not a new gambit. The North Carolina Press Association and open-government groups have fought almost annually to block similar legislation. It’s a nationwide effort – a decade ago, we faced similar efforts in Kentucky.

The tactics this year have been unlike anything I’ve seen.

The lobbying and debate has been intense and spirited in previous sessions, but it has been, allowing for the chaos of a legislative session, rather civil.

This past Tuesday, when the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee (Wade is its vice chair) considered the bill, it was an ugly scene.

Beth Grace, executive director of the press association, said it bluntly, so I’ll borrow her description:

“During the hearing, the pro-government committee chairman Republican Jim Davis of Franklin (who had added all of his counties to the local bill at the last minute) choreographed the hearing to allow lengthy support statements from two legislators, followed by four municipal and county association spokespeople.

“He allowed our legislative liaison John Bussian less than three minutes to speak before he shut down further opposing discussion and declared that no vote would be held. We suspect he declared that because his side did not have enough votes to beat the folks we had recruited to our side.”

The bill originally would have covered Guilford County, Greensboro, High Point and Morrisville. In the days – perhaps hours – before the hearing, it was expanded, with no notice to opponents, to cover the counties of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Guilford, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Union and Wake, any municipality located wholly within those counties, High Point Morrisville.

The bill’s on the committee’s calendar again for Tuesday, although those of us working against the bill suspect the chair will postpone the vote again if his head count comes up short.

I’ll be joining several colleagues from around the state at the hearing, hoping to defeat a move away from government transparency.

Although, frankly, it would be more pleasant to go to a sausage factory.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or at bashley@heraldsun.com.