It’s Sunshine Week across America, a time when the public’s right to see government records and attend government meetings — in order to hold government officials accountable to the people who employ them — is traditionally celebrated.
So it’s an especially good time to take stock of where the people’s right to know about government stands in our state. Unfortunately, for as long as anyone can remember, North Carolinians have been forced to suffer under the weight of one of the worst public records laws in the country. 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 officials from teachers to law enforcement officers accountable— is guaranteed by the law in the states surrounding North Carolina and about 35 others.
This sad state of public affairs could change, thanks to a bill soon to be filed in the North Carolina General Assembly by Senators Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) and Norm Sanderson (R-Craven). The bill, entitled The Government Transparency Act of 2021, would open the door ever so slightly to public viewing of the reasons for terminating, promoting, suspending, demoting, or disciplining a government employee. From our perspective, it is a sea change long overdue, and we strongly support the bill.
In an odd twist of thinking on the subject, other General Assembly members are preparing to file a bill at the urging of NC Attorney General Josh Stein to continue the culture of secrecy surrounding government employee misconduct records. We are told this would be accomplished principally by creating a pair of databases containing law enforcement disciplinary and use-of-force incident records that law enforcement agencies would see, but not the public.
The idea behind the Stein bill is the polar opposite of government transparency. These state criminal justice sector databases would be created under the guise of criminal justice reform that is misleadingly claimed to improve visibility of records on wayward law enforcement officers. But by barring the public from seeing these records, something routinely done 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 is a secrecy bill, not a transparency bill.
At the end of the day, what is our government trying to hide in refusing to make public the reasons for disciplining, suspending, demoting, or even firing government officials?
Instead of inspiring public confidence in government, blocking public access to government personnel records of this kind simply creates suspicion. And that erodes our public institutions, which are staffed by and large with principled and dedicated people.
We are thankful the Republicans in the North Carolina Senate who are behind the real government transparency bill have come to understand that the culture of secrecy that underlies government employee personnel records in our state is public policy that needs to change. The current policy prevents all North Carolinians from being equipped with information necessary to separate good teachers and law enforcement officers from bad ones. But the winds may be shifting with the Republican Senators’ bill, one that unlike the criminal justice “reform” bill backed by AG Stein, is charting a course for renewing the public’s confidence in government through real transparency. It’s high time.
- Paul Mauney is Regional President of Adams Publishing Group’s news publications in North Carolina and serves as President of the North Carolina Press Association
-Bill Moss is Publisher and Editor of Hendersonville Lightning and hendersonvillelightning.com, a digital and print edition newspaper serving western North Carolina and is Chair of the North Carolina Press Association’s Legislative Committee