A Spotlight on Transparency

There’s a pivotal scene in the 2015 film Spotlight when reporters from the Boston Globe, who are looking into claims of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, stumble upon a revealing clue.

They have been stonewalled for months by attorneys for the church and stymied by private financial settlements and non-disclosure agreements designed to keep the matter out of the public eye. And of course, they are never given access to the archdiocese’s personnel records.

It turns out that it’s an innocuous designation in a statewide church directory that brings the scandal’s scope into focus. The offending priests, who have been demoted, transferred, suspended, and dismissed, are all categorized as being on “sick leave.” Absent this one piece of information, this shocking story would have never been told — and the public would have never known.

What happens when a public sector employee’s misconduct results in his or her demotion, transfer, suspension, separation, or dismissal? Is the public, who pays that person’s salary, able to know why one of these personnel actions was taken?

The short answer is no.

A cloak of silence exists in North Carolina around the personnel records of our public-sector employees. There are more than 600,000 people employed in the public sector in our state (14% of the workforce), including state and local bureaucrats, law enforcement officers, firefighters, social workers and more than 100,000 public school teachers.

According to current law, the personnel records of public sector employees are confidential. While certain routine information is public record, including the employee’s name, age, date of employment, position, title, salary, date and amount of each salary change, and the date and type of each personnel action ( e.g. promotion, demotion, transfer, suspension, separation, or dismissal) the only case in which a description of the reasons action was taken is in the case of a promotion. The reasons for a government employee’s demotion, transfer, suspension, separation, or dismissal is not allowed by law.

35 states have expanded public access to the personnel records of public employees over the last decade, but our state lags far behind in this regard.

According to Paul Mauney, President of the North Carolina Press Association, and Bill Moss, Chairman of the NCPA’s Legislative Committee and editor and publisher of the Hendersonville Lightning, “North Carolina ranks near the bottom in the records citizens can access about the job performance their tax dollars fund.”

Legislation making its way to the Governor’s desk would change that. In addition to making public the reasons for each each promotion, House Bill 64, the Government Transparency Act of 2021, would expand public access to a general description of the reasons for demotions, transfers, suspensions, separations, and dismissal.

“Unfortunately, for as long as anyone can remember, North Carolinians have been forced to suffer under the weight of one of the worst public records laws in the country,” continued Maundy and Moss. “For more than 50 years, transparency of North Carolina government has been badly hindered by the lack of public access to arguably the most important government records, those surrounding the hiring, promotion, suspension, demotion, termination or discipline of state and local government employees. And yet public access to these records — vital to holding public officials from teachers to law enforcement officers accountable — is guaranteed by the law in the states surrounding North Carolina and some 35 others.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. The State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC), the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), the Teamsters’ Union, and the AFL-CIO have vociferously opposed expanding such access to personnel records.

Although the legislation in question is now in the form of a House Bill, it originated in the other chamber as Senate Bill 355. However, it did not advance in time to make the “crossover” deadline to be eligible for eventual consideration in the House.

The original bill in the Senate was amended to address due process concerns from the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association and other groups. House Bill 64, which began its life as a bill to modify membership on the NCWorks Commission and that made the crossover deadline, was then gutted and replaced with the language of SB355 — a common legislative maneuver (called a “proposed committee substitute,” or PCS) that is used to resuscitate bills that would otherwise be considered dead.

According to the Carteret County News-Times,”…members of the legislature have weathered calls and constant bombardment of misinformation and intimidation by the unions to stop this legislation.” And in a statement, SEANC claimed credit for stopping Senate Bill 355.

So What’s Next?

Although the House chose not to concur with the Senate’s changes when House Bill 64 made it back across the rotunda on June 16, a well-placed source tells us that a conference committee will be appointed in the next few days to resolve any differences between the bodies, with Speaker Moore and Rules Committee Chair Rep. Destin Hall choosing members from the House.

The Carolina Leadership Coalition applauds the members in both the House and Senate who support this significant legislation and we urge Governor Cooper to sign the bill when it lands on his desk next week.

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