RALEIGH — The state Senate passed a bill Monday night that would make discipline of government employees in North Carolina — whether they work for the city, county, state or UNC system — more public.
The vote was 28-19, with votes falling mostly along party lines. The Senate has a Republican majority.
There was no debate on the bill except for a summary question from Sen. Kirk deViere, a Fayetteville Democrat who voted for it along with two other Democrats. He told The News & Observer after the vote that he believes in transparency in government.
“While I speak about transparency and police accountability, I have to support something that supports it. I have to be consistent when it comes to transparency,” deViere said.
The current law in North Carolina requires the “general description of the reasons” for a government employee’s promotion to be public record. The bill would add demotions, transfers, suspensions, separations and dismissals to the list.
Senate leader Phil Berger told The N&O after the vote that the public looks to lawmakers “to reassure them that what we’re doing is done in the open” and that “the people that the public employs are one, accountable to the public, and two, that the public has the ability to find out certain things, and to know certain things.”
House Bill 64, the Government Transparency Act of 2021, now goes to the House. The bill replaces a previous version of HB 64, so has to be voted on by the House again.
“This bill was never intended to do but one thing, and that is to make North Carolina a more transparent state as far as its employees are concerned,” bill sponsor Sen. Norman Sanderson said during a committee meeting last week. Those employees in the bill include law enforcement, teachers and UNC system workers.
Sanderson added an amendment Monday night that would make the bill, if it becomes law, effective Dec. 31, 2021.
Berger, an Eden Republican, said the bill strikes a good balance despite some government employees’ concerns.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who sponsored a similar bill when he was serving in the General Assembly in 1997, stopped short of saying whether or not he supported this bill on Monday.
“I’m glad to work with the legislature on this legislation. I do believe that transparency is important. Obviously there are issues that need to be protected when it comes to personnel records,” Cooper told reporters during an event at the Executive Mansion.
He said he’d “see what they pass” before saying what he thinks about the bill. “Often times (state lawmakers) will send something that you didn’t think they would send,” Cooper said.
The governor’s bill when he was a state senator, called the Discipline Disclosure Act, would have made public some employee disciplinary records of school boards, municipalities, state agencies and the UNC system. It did not pass, nor did a similar Republican-sponsored bill in 2011.
The State Employees Association of North Carolina opposed the 2011 bill and this one, too. The N.C. Association of Educators also opposes the bill, and signed a letter against it along with SEANC, Teamsters Local 391 and the N.C. Justice Center.
The N.C. Press Association supports the bill, pushing for the state to join the majority of other states that make the descriptions public record. (The News & Record and News & Observer are members of NCPA.)
Phil Lucey, executive director of the NCPA, has called the change in the law the “bare minimum” and “a very simple step that brings us in line with almost 35 other states.”
John Bussian, a Raleigh-based media lawyer and NCPA legislative counsel, described it as a “culture of secrecy versus a culture of openness.”
The bill made several trips in Senate committees to tweak the language after Democrats echoed SEANC concerns about giving employees time for the appeals process to play out before records could become public. The final Senate version would not make the “general description” for a negative job change public until the appeals process has been completed for any disciplinary action related to job status.
Suzanne Beasley of SEANC told lawmakers last week that the bill would chip away at morale.
Sanderson, a Pamlico County Republican, told lawmakers during another meeting that pushing the bill was “a good idea for us, because we are the people who pay state employees in North Carolina ... and should be able to identify bad apples out there.”