The following are all true North Carolina stories — but we never learned the whole story, or else learned it well after the fact:
— A popular schools superintendent in Moore County was suddenly dismissed by the board that employed him, an action that led to a community uproar. The strong reaction led to some board members resigning.
— In Cumberland County, a principal and teacher were suspended then transferred out of their school, and the principal was demoted. Their school community was left shocked and confused.
— Three police officers in Wilmington were fired after making racist and violent comments directed at Black people. Details released by their department afterward showed that two of the officers had a work history that included a previous separation from the department and a demotion.
— In Durham, officers were put on administrative leave because of an internal investigation on whether they consorted with a prostitute. They later resigned on unrelated misconduct — we never learned what that misconduct had been.
The above scenarios share a few things in common. First, the people in each one serves or once served the public, which pays their salaries.
Second, they make decisions that affect our lives, our families, our children, our communities.
Third, we have a right to know what they are up to, as they work on behalf of the public. But in all cases, North Carolina’s overly strict laws governing personnel records kept important and relevant details shielded from the public eye.
A proposed bill in the N.C. General Assembly, Senate Bill 355, The Government Transparency Act of 2021, seeks to change that. The bill’s primary sponsors are Norman Sanderson (R-Carteret, Craven, Pamlico); Bill Rabon (R-Bladen, Brunswick, New Hanover, Pender); and Joyce Krawiec (R-Davie, Forsyth).
The bill would expand what is considered a public record when it comes to personnel files, and we strongly encourage our state legislators to work in a bipartisan way to pass this bill and let the sun shine in. The law has the support of the Gannett family of newspapers in North Carolina as well as the N.C. Press Association.
The Transparency Act would bring North Carolina’s open records law more in line with most of its peers; at least 39 states have laws that grant greater public access to public employee’s personnel records.
In North Carolina, state law allows state and local boards to release only the most bare information from an employee’s personnel file, such as start date and salary. An exception is dismissals, where the reasons for the action can be included in a written notice that is a public document.
But even when it comes to dismissals, public officials often do an end-run around the law by simply not generating a dismissal letter or excluding the reason for dismissal, says John Bussian, a lawyer who represents the N.C. Press Association.
He says: “The biggest hole in North Carolina’s public records law right now, the biggest hole in the public’s right to know, is lack of access to these hiring, firing and performance records, that are an article of faith in the vast majority of other states in the country.”
Under the new Government Transparency Act, the important details of administrative actions involving a public employee would be made available for dismissals, demotions, transfers, suspensions, separations and any “other change in position classification.”
In other words, if a public employee is bounced around or suspended or demoted, we can know the reasons why.
One can easily see how the law as currently written favors the government official over the public he or she serves and why Bussian says it fosters a “culture of secrecy.” This secrecy undermines trust in our institutions.