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Our Opinion: Shedding more light on personnel records

Our Opinion: Shedding more light on personnel records

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Current North Carolina law skews too much toward the interests of public workers and too little toward the interests of the public.

A Republican-sponsored bill in the state Senate would change that.

The Government Transparency Act of 2021 would allow public access to the records of public employees who are disciplined, suspended, demoted or fired from their jobs. In the case of dismissal, the bill calls on department heads to say why.

The law would apply to all public employees, state, county and city, including teachers and law enforcement officers.

Sponsored by Sen. Joyce Krawiec of Forsyth County and two of her fellow Republicans, this legislation is both necessary and long overdue.

As it stands now, general information about promotions within government agencies — the date and general description — is freely available to the public. Likewise, general but non-specific information about dismissals can be obtained.

Not so regarding information about demotions, transfers and suspensions.

North Carolina is one of only 10 states that don’t allow access to disciplinary files, even in the event that an employee has been convicted of a crime — such as a teacher who is convicted of sexually abusing a student, or a police officer convicted of using excessive force. Even after dismissal for such crimes, such people could be hired in localities where no one has knowledge of their misdeeds because their records are considered classified.

And that has happened. A Henderson County teacher, convicted of abusing 17 students, was allowed to teach at six different schools before being caught. More recently an officer fired by the Greensboro Police Department for violation of the department’s use-of-force policy was hired as a Graham police officer within less than six months.

Other records might not be as dramatic; the information in personnel files may be more embarrassing rather than disqualifying.

But transparency should come with the territory.

Whatever the cause of a reprimand or dismissal, this bill would allow the public to know and, thus, hold government employees accountable for their actions — as well as to discourage those unwilling to be held to such account from applying for government positions to start with.

This knowledge would also reduce the possibility of problem employees being passed from one agency to agency.

In some cases, applicants may prefer for the specifics to be known rather than a terse and mysterious “fired for cause” notification.

Of course, news agencies would like access to personnel records. The News & Record joins several other newspapers in the state and the North Carolina Press Association in supporting the bill.

Right now, information about dismissals is often hidden behind vague statements about “privacy” and “policy.”

But it’s even more important for the public to have access to this information.

Some government agencies and officials may think that hiding such information is a good way to avoid the stain of scandal in their departments. They may want to limit access to such records out of a misguided sense of loyalty, or perhaps while thinking that complete transparency would discourage good candidates.

But shielding employment information creates suspicion and erodes public trust.

As with police body camera footage — which also is overly restricted from public view in North Carolina — access to employment records could, in some case, clear workers from claims of improprieties.

Not everyone is on board with the bill in its current form. Democratic Rep. Deb Butler says the bill is “extremely broad” and could have unintended consequences. Notes in personnel files are someone’s subjective opinion and may or may not be accurate, she told the Wilmington Star News.

Those objections are worthy of some discussion and may merit some changes to the bill.

But ultimately, this information belongs to the public and should be open to the public. This legislation should pass.

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