News: CJ Exclusives

Senators push for more transparency in government worker personnel records 

(CJ photo by Maya Reagan)
(CJ photo by Maya Reagan)

Editor’s note: This story was updated March 30 to correctly identify Phil Lucey, N.C. Press Association executive director.

A growing number of senators are signing on to a bill that would make more information available to the public on government employee performance.

Under Senate Bill 355, a description of the reasons for personnel actions like suspensions, promotions, demotions, transfers, and separations would become public records.

Under current law, the public can only access the date and type of these changes. If a state employee is fired, the termination letter is public record currently. This would remain in place.

The new transparency requirements would apply to state employees and workers in local school districts, counties, cities, and colleges and universities.

Should the bill — known as the Government Transparency Act of 2021 — pass, the media and public at large would have a broader window into disciplinary actions taken against government workers. Reporters frequently request the slate of personnel information available under the public records law during investigations, when a government employee is implicated in wrongdoing, or in high-profile incidents like police shootings.

Currently, it’s difficult to determine what led to disciplinary actions. While the date and type are available, the details are protected by privacy laws.

The N.C. Press Association is lobbying in favor of the bill. Phil Lucey, executive director of the NCPA, wrote in an email that his membership surveyed readers and found that close to seven in 10 wanted more access to these personnel records.

“It’s the public’s right to know, and they want change,” he wrote.

Media members are celebrating the bill, calling it “one of the most important transparency bills in recent history,” according to an op-ed by Hendersonville Lightning publisher Bill Moss and Adams Publishing Group regional president Paul Mauney, also president of the NCPA.

“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?” they wrote. “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.”

Groups like the N.C. School Boards Association and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners are tracking the bill but have yet to take public positions on it.

The bill was filed in the Senate on Thursday, March 25, and has yet to be assigned to a committee.

Primary sponsors of the bill are Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, Sen. Norm Sanderson, R-Craven, and Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth. Nine other senators, all Republicans, have joined as co-sponsors.

Andrew Dunn is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.