The main candidates for governor say they favor taking some steps to make state government more transparent, but both avoid sweeping promises about opening up many more records than are already public.
In recent interviews, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and Pat McCrory were generally in agreement when asked about disclosing more state employee personnel records, improving campaign finance reporting, making public ethics complaints and releasing their daily calendars.
Both expressed concern about protecting employees’ and office-holders’ privacy while acknowledging the need to balance the public’s interest in monitoring state government.
A teacher who sexually assaults students, for instance, shouldn’t be allowed to move from school to school hiding behind a series of resignations rather than terminations, Dalton said.
Jane Pinskey, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform, said open records are important, but they aren’t the only good-government goals that the next governor should adopt. The governor could also take steps to root out potential conflicts of interest in state government, she said.
“The governor has the bully pulpit and should be leading the way,” Pinskey said.
Current law lets the public find out when a state employee has been suspended, demoted or fired. Asked if a new category of disclosure should be carved out for instances of resignations because of wrongdoing, McCrory said it should be if it’s serious enough.
“If things were clearly illegal or unethical, I think the public has a right to know that,” McCrory said. “Now, we need to make sure with our personnel lawyers, protecting against lawsuits and everything.”
If it’s just a matter of poor job performance, McCrory said, he wouldn’t be in favor of making that public.
Dalton said he is willing to consider it, but said the problem seems to be not calling a firing what it is.
“If it is a resignation due to wrongdoing, that really ought to be considered a termination,” he said.
Job applications, recommendation letters and resumes are not public record now. Dalton said he would probably be in favor of making those records public for the person hired. Opening those records for all job candidates might not be relevant, he said. McCrory said he would have to give it more thought, but added he would be concerned about applicants’ desire not to let their current employer know they are job-hunting.
Job reviews and complaints are not public now. McCrory said he wasn’t sure about changing that. Dalton also said he was reluctant to go that far, adding that making employees’ job reviews public might cause supervisors to be less objective or stern, when called for, and that could be counterproductive to improving an employee’s performance.
Further opening up of personnel files would meet with opposition from the State Employees Association of North Carolina. Ardis Watkins, legislative affairs director for the association, says there are already safeguards in place that protect employees and the public.
If an employee is suspected of doing something illegal, state agencies are obligated to notify law enforcement. If the suspicion is born out, criminal charges are filed and, at that point, the matter becomes public, she noted.
In some cases – such as inappropriate conduct by a teacher – the employee’s supervisor could be personally liable for failing to act on allegations. That is another layer of protection, Watkins said.
But publicly disclosing what turns out to be an unfounded accusation is not only unfair but could be a violation of an employee’s constitutional right to due process and equal protection, she said. State workers in a number of jobs – inspectors, for example – perform unpopular duties and they are vulnerable to baseless allegations.
Both candidates said there is room to improve campaign finance reporting, requiring better disclosure of where the money goes, and more timely filing.
“You should not be waiting until a week before the election to find out who is giving to a campaign,” McCrory said. “Today with computer technology it can be done much more often. I think the public has a right to know more frequently.’”
McCrory said he would have to look into the question of making public complaints that are filed with the N.C. Ethics Commission, which can investigate legislators, court officials and some additional state employees. Dalton expressed concern that politically motivated complaints, if made public, could cause unfair harm. Dalton said he would be more receptive to the idea if there were some standard to weed out frivolous complaints before they are made public.
Both also said the daily calendars of the governor and state legislators should be made public – except for personal events.
“The only exception that I can think of is if I am meeting with an economic development recruitment,” McCrory said. “My record as mayor was pretty public.”
Pinskey said public disclosure of the governor’s daily activities is important.
“I want to know when a governor meets with someone, when he attends a fundraiser,” she said. “I don’t care when the governor goes to the doctor.”
Pinskey said there are other ways the governor can contribute to good government.
All the governor’s senior advisers and legislative liaisons from state departments should agree to a one-year cooling off period after they leave in which they refrain from lobbying their former colleagues, or to work for someone they used to oversee.
Pinskey said her group would also like future legislative and congressional redistricting to be done by nonpartisan staff, rather than the party that is in power at the time. Such a bill pass the House last year but did not become law.
“The best thing they can do is return the power to the citizens,” she said.
Record on open records
In 2010, North Carolina enacted several state government reforms, opening more records and cracking down on “pay-to-play” politics. Dalton’s record is tied to the General Assembly, as he served in the state Senate from 1996 until his election to lieutenant governor in 2008, an office in which he presides over the Senate.
But earlier this year, the Center for Voter Integrity issued “corruption risk report cards” for the 50 states, and gave North Carolina a “C-minus.” While the state scored an “A” on lobbying disclosure, it received an “F” for public access to information.
Awarding a “D” for legislative accountability, the report stung the state Ethics Commission for not finding it was a conflict of interest for then-Rep. Stephen LaRoque to sponsor a bill loosening billboard regulations – even though he had ownership interests in several billboards. (LaRoque resigned in July after being indicted on charges of defrauding a federal program.)
McCrory’s campaign has been dogged by the candidate’s refusal to release his income tax returns, which Dalton has done, and questions about what clients are represented by the large law firm where he works.
As mayor of Charlotte, McCrory also had run-ins over open-government. In 2009, the Charlotte City Council voted on a major property deal in closed session, which the N.C. Press Association said was illegal. In 2007, he balked at a citizen’s request for copies of his and the council’s emails, saying it was an intrusion into correspondents’ expectation of privacy.