Time is right to open public employee personnel files


Across America, Sunshine Week is a time when newspaper editors celebrate the public’s right to see government records and attend government meetings.

That makes this an especially good time to take stock of where the people’s right to know stands in our state. Unfortunately, for as long as anyone can remember, North Carolinians have suffered under the shroud of one of the worst public records laws in the country. 

The examples right here in Henderson County are embarrassing and stark:

  • Laurence McKisson sexually abused 17 children in Henderson County public schools between 1998 and 2001 before he was caught, arrested, convicted and sent to prison for 63 years. Parents of his victims filed a lawsuit against the school system for failing to vet, monitor and supervise McKisson, calling him  a “perverted child molester who was known to have a pedophilic interest in students and who sexually abused children.” McKisson will likely die in prison and for as long as he languishes there personnel files that may shed light on how he was evaluated remain hidden from public scrutiny.
  • Gail Goldstein, convicted of embezzling $372,000 from Henderson County schools from 1998 to 2002, served a prison term of 6½  years. Efforts by the Times-News nearly 20 years to review her personnel file were rebuffed.
  • When Sheriff Rick Davis was granted “medical leave” under shrouded circumstances in November 2011, details of what triggered his abrupt departure were never fully explained by Henderson County commissioners, nor discoverable by reading his personnel file.

For more than 50 years, transparency of North Carolina government has been badly hindered by the lack of public access to arguably the most important government records — those surrounding the hiring, promotion, suspension, demotion, termination or discipline of state and local government employees. And yet public access to these records — vital to holding public employees from teachers to law officers to DOT dump truck drivers accountable— is guaranteed by law in the states surrounding North Carolina plus some 35 others.

This sad state of public affairs could change, thanks to a bill soon to be introduced in the General Assembly by Sens. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) and Norm Sanderson (R-Craven). The bill, entitled the Government Transparency Act of 2021, would crack the door slightly by allowing the public to see the reasons for terminating, promoting, suspending, demoting or disciplining a government employee. In states with aggressive sunshine laws, that may seem incremental. In North Carolina, it’s a sea change that we heartily applaud.

In a distorted twist of logic on the subject, other General Assembly members filed a bill at the behest of N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein this week that would reinforce, not topple, the wall of secrecy blocking access to public employee misconduct records. The Stein-endorsed bill would create a pair of databases to store law enforcement disciplinary and use-of-force incident records. Law enforcement agencies could access them while the public could not.

The spirit behind the Stein bill is the opposite of government transparency. The attorney general costumes the database of law officer misconduct as criminal justice reform. But by barring the public from seeing these records — access routinely permitted in 40 states — North Carolinians would remain in the dark about the records of those who police their streets and manage their state and local law enforcement agencies. Stein’s measure is a secrecy bill, not a transparency bill.

Instead of inspiring public confidence in government, blocking public access to government personnel records of this kind simply creates suspicion and mistrust. And that erodes our public institutions, which are by and large with principled and dedicated people.

The Senate sponsors behind the real government transparency measure recognize the need to cast aside a culture of secrecy that locks away government employee personnel records. The current policy prevents North Carolinians from gaining access to information that would help distinguish good teachers and law officers from bad ones. Thankfully, the wind in Raleigh may be shifting. The bill by Rabon and Sanderson charts a course for renewed public confidence in government through real transparency.