Local Democrats reluctant to support government transparency bill

Buncombe General Assembly Democrats
NOTHING TO SEE HERE: All four of the state-level Democrats who represent Buncombe County — clockwise from top left, Rep. Brian Turner, Sen. Julie Mayfield and reps Susan Fisher and John Ager — did not express support for a new bill to allow greater access to government employee records. Photos courtesy of those pictured

“We believe that the state government must be accountable to the people of this great state through transparency in how government business is transacted and the release of information in a timely manner.” That’s what the N.C. Democratic Party platform has to say on the subject of access to government records.

That position, however, doesn’t appear to extend to records about government employee personnel decisions. Nearly all Democrats in the state Senate stood against House Bill 64, the Government Transparency Act of 2021, in a 28-19 vote to approve the measure on June 14 — including Sen. Julie Mayfield, who represents the western two-thirds of Buncombe County.

If signed into law, HB64 would require all government agencies in the state to disclose when employees are promoted, demoted, transferred, suspended, separated or dismissed, as well as provide a “general description of the reasons” for each move. Such a level of transparency would align North Carolina with laws in at least 35 other states, including Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.

The bill is now slated for consideration by a joint committee of Senate and House members, which will then submit language for a new vote in both legislative chambers. When Xpress asked each of Buncombe County’s state-level representatives if they would support the new transparency measures, only Republican Sen. Chuck Edwards, who represents the eastern third of Buncombe County, along with Henderson and Transylvania counties, gave an unequivocal yes.

“All employees on the state payroll work for the taxpayers. Those taxpayers deserve to know the reasons behind significant employment decisions for those who serve them,” said Edwards, who voted for the bill on June 14. “Moreover, citizens should be allowed to see the rationale that leaders use in making those major decisions; otherwise, we cannot hold leaders accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf.”

Pressing matter

The transparency language was introduced in the current legislative session by a trio of Republican senators with the support of the N.C. Press Association. (Xpress and its journalists are NCPA members and participate in the association’s annual awards.) But John Bussian, the NCPA’s legislative counsel, says previous efforts to enact similar measures have been bipartisan or driven by Democrats.

Bussian notes that then-Sen. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who now serves as the state’s governor, introduced the Discipline Disclosure Act in 1997. That bill, which stalled in the House Committee on Public Employees, would also have required more government employee personnel records to be made public. A subsequent bipartisan effort in 2010 led by Republican Sen. Phil Berger and Democratic Sen. Dan Clodfelter failed to pass transparency measures as well.

“So here we are, almost 25 years after Roy Cooper made the first serious attempt to bring North Carolina into the 21st century when it comes to the public’s right to know about its own state and local government employees,” Bussian says. “There have been a number of serious attempts made to do this that started with, oddly enough, the Democrats, who now are lined up in opposition.”

The change in Democratic attitudes, Bussian believes, has been driven by strident criticism from the State Employees Association of North Carolina and the N.C. Association of Educators, which together represent tens of thousands of government workers. A letter jointly signed by leaders of both organizations, as well as the Teamsters and N.C. Justice Center, calls the transparency language unconstitutional and claims it would harm employees.

“[The bill] will only embroil the state in lawsuits and open the personnel records of public service workers to gossip and innuendo and difficulties finding future employment,” the letter reads.

Bussian counters that other states that have had similar levels of transparency for decades haven’t experienced those problems. He says greater access to records would help journalists hold governments accountable.

In a local example, had HB64 been in place in 2018, Asheville would have been required to provide an explanation for the firing of former City Manager Gary Jackson by City Council. The city has never formally disclosed a reason for that personnel decision, made after the leak of body camera footage that showed the beating of Black resident Johnnie Rush by former white Asheville Police Department officer Chris Hickman; Jackson received six months’ worth of salary and benefits after his firing.

“Most people I know in newsrooms say this would be the single greatest gain for them on their beats of anything that’s happened in their lifetimes, here at least,” Bussian says. “Some of those reporters who have worked in other states are familiar with the world of openness, but not here.”

Mum’s the word

Mayfield, as well as Democratic Reps. John Ager, Susan Fisher and Brian Turner, all say they haven’t been approached by state employee lobbyists regarding the bill. Mayfield says her opposition is grounded in a basic regard for privacy: “I don’t think any of us, regardless of where we work, would want our personnel file opened up to public review (even if it only contains general descriptions).”

Mayfield adds that she disagrees with Edwards’ points on accountability. “Just being a public employee doesn’t mean your employment life should be spread out for all to see,” she says. “Some things are better to be private, and I believe personnel records fall into that category.”

Ager echoes Mayfield’s concerns and says he will need more time to consider the bill. Turner, meanwhile, shares worries about misuse of the information that would be released.

“In the past 10 years or so, we’ve seen an explosion of data that’s taken out of context and weaponized,” Turner says, noting that employees don’t have control over how their disciplinary actions are described by supervisors. While he might support making more information available with “appropriate safeguards,” he continues, he has no proposal for how that might be accomplished.

And although Fisher says she’s “generally been on the side of the press association” in the past, she’s cautious about releasing private personnel details. “I think it started out a little too broad,” she says of the information the bill would divulge.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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12 thoughts on “Local Democrats reluctant to support government transparency bill

  1. Soothsayer

    This should not be a debated issue. Transparency should be required with easy visibility to all NC state and local residents. After all it is our plethora of taxes that fund everything from civil servant salaries to roads and bridges.

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    • luther blissett

      The question becomes how it’s used. The text is very broad. It’s one thing for the press and public to be given transparency for decisions like Gary Jackson’s firing, and another to allow anyone to look up detailed personnel records of every public school teacher in the state on a whim. Brian Turner’s right: in the current political climate, that kind of information is easily weaponized. (And it’s also a treasure trove for those who want to engage in identity theft.)

      So our colonial governor Chuck Edwards is being shifty or dumb — let’s assume shifty — when he says it’s about “hold[ing] leaders accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf.” It empowers already-powerful people to fund fishing expeditions on low-ranking public employees who don’t have much power at all. (The primary sponsors of this bill have long-standing ties to Art Pope and Koch family operations. They also kinda hate public employees.)

      Anyway, I’m sure they’ll want the same kind of transparency and accountability for their campaign contributions so we can see who’s influe– what’s that? oh.

      • The text of HB64 is specifically limited to general descriptions of personnel decisions. The SEANC/NCAE letter contains false information about the scope of the bill (referenced as its previous iteration, Senate Bill 355), as explained by the N.C. Press Association here: http://www.ncpress.com/transparency/

        “The NC Press Association 1) corrects the misinformation in NCAE’s letter to NC state senators about the public records laws in other states (where virtually complete public access to the entire government personnel file is guaranteed) when compared to NC’s 50 year old, total ban on public access to reasons for disciplinary actions taken against those employed by the public; and 2) dispels the false NCAE-SEANC-Teamsters’ notion and narrative that the bill is legally defective.

        It is worth remembering that the bill’s core language dramatically improving NC Public Records Law was crafted in 2010 through the work of then-state Democrat Senator Dan Clodfelter and then-state senate Minority Leader Phil Berger. That language would require — for the first time in NC history — disclosure of a “general description of the reasons” for a demotion, suspension, separation, or termination of a government employee to the taxpaying public who employ them in state and local government.)”

        • luther blissett

          Hi Daniel:, I appreciate your reply. I read the text of H64 from your link, because it’s baseline due diligence.

          https://www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2021/Bills/House/PDF/H64v3.pdf

          State employee salaries are already public records, of course. The Charlotte Observer has a searchable database, and it’s often eye-opening for the disparities in how state employees are compensated. Make a note of that and come back to it in December for municipal and school-board employees. I don’t have any issue with public access to disciplinary or termination records. I approach this kind of access not in terms of legitimate media inquiries, which are important and necessary, but by what bad actors can do with it. And oh, they can do a lot. (If you think this kind of data won’t be used to target unsuspecting people with exemplary records, then… well.)

          I’ll also point you to sections 10 and 11. which don’t inspire a huge amount of confidence in the capacity for public employees to review and seek corrections to their “general description” personnel files in a timely and effective manner. There should be legally-mandated policies in place by November 30. The law takes effect on December 1.

          (In passing: are the staffers of our colonial governor Chuck Edwards covered by this statute? Elected officials and their staff are always a gray area.)

          Anyway, let’s reconvene this time next year and see whether this is being used more by the media to wheedle out important information on fired city managers or bad public school teachers or more by organizations sustained by dark money to treat random college instructors as collateral damage in the culture wars.

          • dyfed

            Trust ‘Luther blissett’ to show up to rescue our poor beleaguered rulers from the depredations of the people knowing what they’re up to. Bonus points for ‘when all else fails, blame the Kochs.’

            Just come out and say that you believe in ‘transparency for thee, not for me.’

          • luther blissett

            Shwmae, shwmae dyfed: you had the option not to put words into my mouth, but you decided against it.

            I believe in transparency for people in positions of authority and power, and I worry about the behavior of powerful people who are not subject to any kind of transparency. Is that a bad thing? I mean, it sounds like you have already decided who deserves to operate without any kind of oversight.

  2. Taxpayer

    Used to be “do as I say, not as I do”. Now it’s “do as i say, keep what I do hidden “. Lol

  3. G Man

    Another great example of how backward our government has become. The use of the word “public” in this discussion is stupid. The word used should be “owner”. In any company setting, the owner(s) will have the final say about how things work and same owner(s) will certainly have access to employment records. The people who pay the bills and the salaries, in this case the taxpayers, are the ones who should decide how the records of their employees are handled, not the employees.

    Who the hell do these people think they are? It seems like every single elected “official” thinks they are above the rest of us and have no rules to follow or accountability.

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    • luther blissett

      “The people who pay the bills and the salaries, in this case the taxpayers, are the ones who should decide how the records of their employees are handled, not the employees.”

      This would be a very reasonable argument if the members of the NC General Assembly were an absolute representation of “the taxpayers.” Unfortunately for your argument, they aren’t. The same would apply if majority control of the NCGA were in different hands and it voted to raise taxes. You would say “I am a taxpayer and this doesn’t reflect what I want.”

  4. Curious

    Could Mountain Express please be transparent about why it chose to let some of its employees go, starting with Cecil Bothwell?

  5. Enlightened Enigma

    Isn’t it fun that elected democrats resist transparency in government? but not surprising in the least.

    Why do elected democrats never have any helpful and constructive leadership skills? Why do they destroy everything?

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