A bill currently before the legislature, The Government Transparency Act of 2021, would allow public access to the records of public employees who are disciplined, suspended, demoted or fired from their jobs. In the case of dismissal, the bill calls on department heads to set forth “the specific acts or omissions that are the basis of the dismissal.”
The law would apply to all public employees, state, county and city, including teachers and law enforcement officers.
The bill is sponsored by Forsyth County’s Sen. Joyce Krawiec and two other Republican state senators, is necessary and overdue.
As it stands now, general information about promotions within government agencies — the date and general description — is freely available to the public. Likewise, general but non-specific information about dismissals can be obtained.
Not so, information about demotions, transfers and suspensions.
North Carolina is behind the curve when it comes to public access to public records, as is evident from our police body cam restrictions — only making such footage available to the public via court order. Our state is one of only 10 that don’t allow access to disciplinary files, even in the event that an employee has been convicted of a crime — such as a teacher who is convicted of sexually abusing a student, or a police officer convicted of using excessive force. Even after dismissal for such crimes, such people could be hired in localities where no one has knowledge of their misdeeds because their records are considered classified.
Indeed, a Henderson County teacher, convicted of abusing 17 students, was allowed to teach at six different schools before being caught.
Other records might not be as dramatic; the information in personnel files may be embarrassing rather than disqualifying.
But whatever the cause of a reprimand or dismissal, this bill would allow the public to know and, thus, hold government employees accountable for their actions — and discourage those unwilling to be held to such account from applying for government positions to start with.
This knowledge would also reduce the possibility of employees with problematic records from being passed from agency to agency.
In some cases, applicants may prefer for the specifics to be known rather than a terse and mysterious “fired for cause” notification.
Of course, news agencies would like access to personnel records. The Journal joins several other newspapers in the state and the North Carolina Press Association in supporting the bill.
Right now, information about dismissals is often hidden behind vague statements about “privacy” and “policy.”
But it’s even more important for the public to have access to this information.
Some government agencies and officials may think that hiding such information is a good way to avoid the stain of scandal in their departments. They may want to limit access to such records out of a misguided sense of loyalty, or perhaps while thinking that complete transparency would discourage good candidates.
Instead, hiding employment information creates suspicion and erodes public trust in our institutions, which are beleaguered enough these days.
As with police body cams, there are also instances in which access to employment records could clear employees from claims of improprieties.
Not everyone is on board with the bill in its current form. Democratic Rep. Deb Butler says the bill is “extremely broad” and could have unintended consequences. Notes in personnel files are someone’s subjective opinion and may or may not be accurate, she told the Wilmington Star News.
Those objections are worthy of some discussion and may merit some changes to the bill.
But ultimately, more information is always better than less.
The information belongs to the public. The public paid for it and should be allowed access to it. This bill should pass.