North Carolina has a chance to secure a key victory in the never-ending battle to hold our government officials accountable with the The Government Transparency Act of 2021.
Senate Bill 355 has passed the Senate Rule Committee and will soon head to the Senate floor. Contrary to the claims of its critics, this bill is not a radical violation of privacy for government employees, but rather would bring North Carolina closer in line with transparency laws in our neighboring states and 35 other states throughout the country.
The bill would expand the definition of public records to include the description of the reasons for each promotion, demotion, dismissal, transfer, suspension, separation or other change in position classification for public employees. The current law only allows for a date and description of the reasons for promotions and, in the case of a dismissal for a disciplinary purpose, only allows a copy of the written notice given by the department head naming the reasons for the dismissal.
The status quo now is for a large swath of personnel actions by local and state government agencies to go on behind the scenes despite the critical impact these actions can have on the public, which weakens public trust. Public officials can be fired, demoted, suspended, transferred or resign without any public knowledge of why. This means parents aren’t entitled to their child’s teacher’s work history, and local leaders can’t find out why a law enforcement officer has been moved from department to department.
These government employees work for the taxpayers, and it’s time the taxpayers have a say in who they employ.
North Carolina has maintained this shroud of secrecy in its laws for more than 50 years. The vast majority of open government states, including the top tier public records laws in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Ohio, and Texas allow access to virtually the entire public employee personnel file (minus social security and bank account numbers and the like). Thirty more states, Iowa notably among them, offer access to reasons for disciplinary actions like those contained in The Government Transparency Act of 2021.
A representative of the State Employees Association of North Carolina claimed in committee this week that the bill would allow personal records of employees to be shared online for the purpose of gossip and open employees up to attacks by vindictive coworkers or others, but there is specific language in the bill to provide safeguards from this kind of disclosure. The bill would also keep information about disciplinary actions from being released until after the employee has exhausted all options for administrative appeal.
According to a poll by the North Carolina Press Association, 70% of North Carolinians support expanded rights to see records of government officials. While the lobbyists for the State Employees Association of North Carolina and North Carolina Association of Educators say their members don’t support greater transparency, the Wilson Times reported that NCAE members have said they were never polled and a SEANC spokesman didn’t know whether a member survey had been conducted. Of course, if this research had been done, these organizations would be shouting it with a megaphone.
In a time when it is so easy to spread misinformation, for rumors to go viral, and when some government officials have made it policy to attack media and others who seek to bring the truth to light, it is more sunshine that will heal our public discourse. Tell your representatives to support Senate Bill 355, the Government Transparency Act of 2021.
Source: New feed