When the 2021 General Assembly session began, passage of legislation increasing public access to records of disciplinary actions taken by state and local government employees seemed like a longshot.
Long a priority of North Carolina newspapers, improved access to public employee personnel records had been more aspirational than reality-based.
After nine months of public hearings, tweaking that preserved the legislation’s purpose and procedural moves by Senate Republicans to nudge the bill forward, the legislature is on the verge of making the most important advance in the public’s right to know in recent history: passage of the Government Transparency Act of 2021.
It’s historic because North Carolina law has kept the public in the dark about state and local government personnel misconduct like almost no other state. North Carolina ranks among the bottom five states in the rights of taxpayers to see basic records of disciplinary actions taken against state and local government workers — everyone from public school teachers to law enforcement administrators.
Opening these records would hold state and local government more accountable by giving taxpayers a general description of reasons for suspensions (with or without pay), transfers, demotions and terminations of public employees due to misconduct.
There have been efforts in the legislature to make these records available for 25 years, if for no other reason than to ensure confidence in government. The same groups that opposed this legislation from the outset — state employees and public school teachers, and now the Teamsters Union — have blocked passage.
It’s unknowable how many public employees and schoolteachers actually endorse their lobbyists’ effort to keep personnel files secret. Our guess is that most of them — hard-working employees dedicated to their jobs and their communities — don’t oppose unlocking the work records of those who give their profession a black eye through criminal activity, reckless action or indolence.
With the Senate’s passage of the latest effort to advance this vital part of the public’s right to know — in the form of House Bill 64 — the House has a chance to make history by adopting the bill as drafted.
With HB 64 scheduled to be heard in the House this week, North Carolinians should contact their House representatives and ask them to support the legislation. The bill would finally give taxpayers a right of access that has inspired confidence in government and benefitted citizens in 40 other states for decades.
North Carolina’s taxpayers are the ultimate hirers and funders of rank and file local and state employees and supervisors. Those taxpayers have a right to know what went wrong when one of their employees is shown the door.