It’s a pattern so well-rehearsed it may as well be a dance called the Pass the Trash Two-Step: A government agency opens an investigation into an employee accused of misconduct. The worker resigns, only to resurface within a few weeks or months doing a similar job in another community.
Residents will never know the police officer, teacher, school administrator or social worker’s real reason for leaving. And if the new bosses ran their background check before the internal investigation is complete, they’ll never know either.
Legislation to reform North Carolina’s opaque personnel privacy laws would stop the duplicitous dance and make public servants face the music for misconduct on the job. Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, filed the Government Transparency Act of 2023 last week, and the General Assembly can increase accountability and trust by enacting it into law.
Sanderson’s Senate Bill 254 would rewrite the laws on state, county and local personnel records to make the date and a general description of each promotion, demotion, transfer, suspension, separation and dismissal subject to disclosure under the N.C. Public Records Act. If a police sergeant was busted down to corporal for using excessive force, for example, or a principal was transferred from one school to another because of a romantic relationship with a teacher he or she supervised, the taxpayers who fund these workers’ salaries would have the right to know.
SB 254 was assigned to the Senate’s rules committee. The panel’s chair, Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, joins Sanderson and Sen. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, as a primary sponsor. A lion of the Senate, Rabon vowed last year to help carry the bill across the finish line in his seventh and possibly final term.
“I do believe very much in the public’s right to know,” Rabon told journalists assembled for the North Carolina Press Association’s annual awards banquet. “I think it’s incumbent upon you all to inform them and to let them know what is going on in every stage of government.”
Newspapers support the Government Transparency Act because it’s our job to serve as the public’s watchdog, and sniffing out scandal in a government official’s past is next to impossible when the details are state secrets kept under lock and key in some dusty human resources file cabinet. Rabon’s work on the bill’s previous iterations earned him the NCPA’s 2022 William C. Lassiter First Amendment Award.
Sanderson introduced SB 254 just in time for Sunshine Week, a national celebration of open government organized by the News Leaders Association and the Society for Professional Journalists that began Sunday and continues through Saturday. The observance promotes awareness of the federal Freedom of Information Act and state public records and open meetings statutes. News outlets invoke such laws to obtain newsworthy information that’s in the public interest to report, but all citizens — not just reporters — have these tools at their disposal.
The Government Transparency Act passed the Senate in 2021, but fierce lobbying from two public-sector employee groups hampered its progress in the House. The North Carolina Association of Educators and State Employees Association of North Carolina have their knives out for this bill.
With less than a quarter of Tar Heel teachers and roughly a third of state employees, respectively, paying association dues, the organizations aren’t truly representative of the workers for whom they claim to speak. What’s more, we’ve seen no evidence that either group surveyed its full membership before staking out public positions opposing transparency. Paid staffs and hired-gun lobbyists, not rank-and-file teachers and state workers, are fighting to preserve the secretive status quo.
These folks are decidedly in the minority of North Carolina taxpayers. About 7 out of 10 people (69%) favor a change in state law that would improve the public’s right to see disciplinary records of law enforcement officers and other government officials, according to a Coda Ventures study commissioned by the NCPA. Only 14% of respondents said they oppose increasing access to employment records. The other 18% were unsure.
We urge our local legislative delegation and all General Assembly members to vote in the affirmative on Senate Bill 254. If he who pays the piper calls the tune, constituents have made it clear that it’s time to replace the Pass the Trash Two-Step with a dance whose directions don’t leave them in the dark.
Originally published by The Wilson Times.