“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.”
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.