Our Opinion: It’s not too late to bring records into the sunlight
Dave DiFilippo cartoon
This cartoon was first published in March to commemorate Sunshine Week, a national observance designed to raise awareness of open records and public meetings laws.
As North Carolina lawmakers continue hammering out a state budget, they can make the most of their extended stay in Raleigh by voting to hold public servants accountable when they’re disciplined for misconduct.
The General Assembly still hasn’t passed the Government Transparency Act of 2021, a tweak to the state public records law that would require agencies to disclose basic details when employees such as police officers, prison guards, building inspectors, teachers and driver license examiners receive administrative punishments.
Taxpayers foot the bill for these workers’ salaries, but when they make mistakes that carry real-world consequences, state and local officials cover up for them instead of coming clean. Current law gives city and county managers the discretion to discuss employee discipline when they determine doing so is “essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration” of local government services, but this voluntary release valve is all but rusted shut from underuse.
North Carolinians deserve to know when the people working on their behalf receive a warning, suspension or demotion, and updating the public records law to increase transparency is broadly popular.
Roughly 7 out of 10 residents (69%) favor a change in the law that would improve the public’s right to see the records of law enforcement officers and other government officials, according to a Coda Ventures study conducted for the North Carolina Press Association this year. The NCPA, a trade group for the state’s local newspapers and online news outlets, is supporting the open government reform.
Only 14% of respondents said they oppose increasing access to employment records. The other 18% said “I’m not sure,” likely because they were unfamiliar with the issue or had mixed feelings. But as public policy mandates go, 7 out of 10 is stout. For comparison, the 2018 constitutional amendment to require voter identification passed with 55.49% of the vote.
Sen. Norm Sanderson, R-Pamlico, introduced the Government Transparency Act, and the good-government bill gained widespread support in the Senate Republican Caucus. Senate Democrats tried to sink the measure despite paying lip service to laws designed to curb excessive force in the months following George Floyd’s murder at a Minneapolis police officer’s hands.
Legislative Democrats said they wanted to prevent officers like Derek Chauvin, the man convicted of killing Floyd, from working in North Carolina law enforcement agencies. But they voted against a bill that would allow the public and press to hold police and other public workers accountable for violating agency policies.
Why the about-face on accountability? Two powerful special interest groups, the State Employees Association of North Carolina and the North Carolina Association of Educators, dispatched lobbyists to fight the bill tooth and nail. However, the groups’ opposition carries far less weight than their names suggest.
No more than a quarter of the state’s schoolteachers are dues-paying NCAE members, and the proportion could be even smaller. Only 6,083 of nearly 95,000 teachers are enrolled in voluntary payroll deductions for NCAE dues, according to the most recent N.C. Office of the State Auditor report. The SEANC fares better, but its payroll deduction figures indicate it represents considerably less than half of current state employees.
Neither the NCAE nor SEANC surveyed its members before spending their money to lobby against government transparency. We get the impression that the proverbial tail is wagging the dog: paid staff and lobbyists, not rank-and-file members, are behind the push for continued secrecy.
The associations want legislators to believe teachers and state employees are worried about people pawing through their personnel files, but perhaps we have more faith in these constituencies than the groups who purport to represent them. We don’t believe the average worker identifies with the few underperforming or misbehaving colleagues whose disciplinary records would be exposed.
Why would city, county and state employees want to protect the coworkers who betray the public’s trust and risk giving their honorable professions— teaching, enforcing the law and administering taxpayer services — a bad name? Sorry, NCAE and SEANC, we don’t buy it. Neither should the General Assembly.
The 7 in 10 North Carolinians who support more transparency surely includes thousands of teachers, state employees and local government workers who would be subject to the disclosure requirement if they were disciplined. And that’s more data than you’ll see from the employee trade groups whose priorities are set in Raleigh offices far out of sight from their members.
Lawmakers should pass the Government Transparency Act for the benefit of all North Carolinians: the vast majority of public employees who do their jobs capably and have nothing to fear and the taxpayers who deserve to know about the misconduct that happens on their dime and what’s being done about it.
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