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EDITORIAL

Our Opinion: Lift veil of secrecy shrouding public employee records

Posted on March 15, 2021

OpinionEditorials

Dave DiFilippo cartoon

Your taxes pay their salaries, but when police officers, teachers and other public-sector workers are disciplined for misconduct, the reasons are often considered a state secret.

North Carolina ranks among the worst states in the country when it comes to personnel record transparency. In 35 other states, residents can review local government and state agency documents that explain why workers were promoted, demoted, suspended or dismissed. 

That could change if the General Assembly passes the Government Transparency Act of 2021, a bill state Sens. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, and Norm Sanderson, R-Craven, plan to file in order to open more agency records to public review. Sunshine, after all, is the best disinfectant. 

The North Carolina Press Association announced Rabon and Sanderson’s bill in advance of Sunshine Week, a nationwide campaign to promote open government and public accountability that’s sponsored by the News Leaders Association, formerly the American Society of News Editors. This year, Sunshine Week began on Sunday, March 14, and runs through Saturday, March 20.

Calls to open personnel files shouldn’t be seen as an attack on government employees. Most teachers, law enforcement officers and public officials perform their jobs capably, exercising good judgment and serving North Carolinians with pride and distinction. 

“Instead of inspiring public confidence in government, blocking public access to government personnel records of this kind simply creates suspicion,” Paul Mauney and Bill Moss of the North Carolina Press Association write in a guest column on our website. “And that erodes our public institutions, which are staffed, by and large, with principled and dedicated people.” 

Because they work for the taxpayers, state, county, city and town employees are subject to more oversight than their colleagues in the private sector. That’s as it should be. 

State law already makes some “name, rank and serial number” information, including employees’ names, hire dates, position titles and current salaries, available for public review. But the 12 details listed under N.C. General Statute 160A-168 are exceptions to a 1,400-word section of state law called “Privacy of employee personnel records,” which shows lawmakers have their priorities backward. 

North Carolina should begin with a presumption of openness, with most information about public-sector workers subject to the N.C. Public Records Act. Sensitive personal data can be listed as exceptions. That way, taxpayers could access any records that aren’t specifically exempt instead of being limited to a dozen details. 

The Government Transparency Act promises more insight into employees’ work performance, which is firmly in the public’s interest. If a law enforcement officer is suspended, demoted or reassigned following a substantiated use of force complaint, you should have the right to know exactly what transpired. 

Transparency is in public agencies’ best interest. If a worker is elevated to a leadership role over more experienced colleagues, performance reviews and full histories of employment actions could provide insight into the hiring manager’s decision-making process. Without public access to factual information, rumors of favoritism, nepotism or political maneuvering more easily circulate. 

Most North Carolinians support transparency and accountability. If the bill garners any opposition, it’s likely to come from public employee associations and groups representing North Carolina’s municipal and county governments. 

The latter would do well to remember that cities’ and counties’ membership dues are easily traced to taxpayers’ wallets, and lobbying to keep their benefactors in the dark will be unpopular. If constituents feel their money is being used against their own interests, they have every right to ask council members and county commissioners to stop funding these private groups. 

As for employee associations and the workers they represent, it’s time to embrace transparency as a necessary part of every public-sector job. Law enforcement officers who say a few bad apples have unfairly given their profession a black eye, for example, shouldn’t close ranks around those who’ve been disciplined for misconduct. People with nothing to hide need not fear accountability. 

We support the Government Transparency Act, and we call on Sen. Lisa Barnes and Reps. James Gailliard and Matthew Wimslow to cast their votes for more sunshine and less secrecy in the Tar Heel State.

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