By BILL MOSS and PHIL LUCEY
A newly sworn-in North Carolina General Assembly and a fresh legislative session present an opportunity to significantly advance government transparency and the people’s right to know.
Coinciding serendipitously with Sunshine Week 2023 — March 13-19 — a bill has been filed that would vault our state from the bottom of the pile in government transparency.
The legislation — in the form of Senate Bill 254 — mirrors last session’s Government Transparency Act — with an important difference. Imprinting the bill with bipartisan sponsorship for the first time, Sen. Graig Meyer (D-Orange) has joined ranking Republican Sens. Norm Sanderson and Bill Rabon as primary sponsors of the bill. Putting the Government Transparency Act of 2023 on the legislative docket sets the stage for another showdown in the quest to allow public access to state and local government employee disciplinary records for the first time.
Compared the most robustly open states, this bill represents a modest step toward improving the public’s right to know. It only gives the public the right to see a “general description” of the reasons for a state or local government employee’s demotion, suspension, transfer, separation or termination. The bill stops far short of affording the public and press access to all personnel files of public employees the way the law allows in top open government states like Georgia, Ohio and Florida. In fact, more than 38 other states offer better access to disciplinary records than North Carolina does.
As we celebrate Sunshine Week, it’s worth pointing out that the Government Transparency Act is the best vehicle we’ve had in years to protect the public’s right to know, hold elected leaders and managers to account and expose wrongdoing when wrongdoing has happened.
The record is replete with stories of terminations or demotions — even crimes committed — that are reported but unexplained. A schools superintendent in Alamance County abruptly resigned and pocketed a large farewell check while the public is left in the dark. A preschool Title II reading teacher in Henderson County who was quietly passed along from school to school eventually was convicted of multiple child sex offenses and sent to prison for life — though his personnel file remains locked in a file cabinet. A police body cam or bystander’s smartphone may record a rogue cop’s excessive force and although there may be a disciplinary action by his superiors, the local newspaper reporter requesting documentation will confront a stone wall.
The North Carolina Press Association and its 173 members have been working for the passage of the Government Transparency Act since 2021 and we’ve advocated for improved access to personnel records for decades before that.
The State Employees Association of North Carolina, the North Carolina Association of Educators, the Teamsters Union and other opponents of Senate bill 254 will issue their usual canard about “fishing expeditions” and argue that public employees deserve due process protection. The bill takes care of the latter, guaranteeing employees an avenue of appeal before a disciplinary record is released.
To their credit, Sens. Sanderson, Rabon and Meyer and other friends of open government have not been cowed by the stale talking points designed to derail the Government Transparency Act.
It’s high time for North Carolina to join the ranks of the better-performing states when it comes to public records and government accountability. Enacting Senate Bill 254 is the way the General Assembly can do that.