RALEIGH — A bill making its way through the N.C. legislature would allow more access to public records related to investigations and departures of government employees.
The Government Transparency Act of 2021, or Senate Bill 355, would allow access to employee records that show why someone was promoted, demoted, dismissed, transferred, suspended or any other change to a position classification. The records would be available for any state agency, local boards of education, board of trustees, and city and county employees.
The full title of the bill is “An Act to Strengthen Confidence in Government by Increasing Accessibility to Public Personnel Hiring, Firing and Performance Records.”
Director of NC Open Government Coalition Brooks Fuller said under current law the public can only get limited information from a public servant’s personnel file.
“In most cases, the public only learns the reasons for a personnel action when a public servant is terminated,” Fuller said. “This bill would make it so that the public gets more information about other personnel actions as well, such as promotions and suspensions. This could be incredibly important when the public wants to learn about a public servant’s disciplinary record but the public servant has never been terminated from a role.”
Senate Bill 355 would modify the current statute — NCGS 126-23 — which tells what employee records each department, agency, institution, commission and bureau of the state should keep.
Currently, under NCGS 160A-168, city employers aren’t required to disclose investigative reports or memoranda and other information concerning the investigation of possible criminal actions of an employee, until the investigation is completed and no criminal action is taken, or until the criminal action is concluded.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Norman Sanderson (R–District 2), Sen. Bill Rabon (R–District 8) and Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R–District 31).
If the bill were to become law, it would become effective Dec. 1. Boone Police Chief Andy Le Beau said he does not provide a lot of commentary on political matters and that the department would comply with laws enacted by the state legislature.
“At the Boone Police Department we have demonstrated transparency over many years with our cooperation with citizens and with the media,” Le Beau said.
Specifically for the Government Transparency Act, Le Beau said legislators will have to weigh employee privacy rights and the need for public trust.
“If I had a concern over a piece of legislation, I may contact my representative just like any citizen, but again, I do not believe that it is my place to publicly delve into legislative matters,” Le Beau said. “I just want to run a great police department.”
Le Beau also mentioned a law related to police — Senate Bill 300 — that would create a database for law enforcement agencies to use to track disciplinary actions and decertification of law enforcement officers in the state.
“We believe in doing thorough background checks on each and every employee to make sure we are hiring people without ethical baggage,” Le Beau said.
In Florida, complaints filed against police or correctional officers are protected until the conclusion of the internal investigation or the investigation ceases without a finding of probable cause, according to the American bar Association.
There are no specific exemptions from disclosure for public employee personnel records in South Carolina, but most public bodies seek to assert an exemption under the “unreasonable invasion of personal privacy” framework, according to the ABA.
Boone Town Manager John Ward said he does not take personal positions on potential legislation. He did say the Boone town policy is to comply with all local, state and federal public record policies.
Sen. Deanna Ballard (R–Watauga) said in a statement that she thinks Senate Bill 355 is a good step forward in transparency for state government.
“This bill strikes the right balance between the public’s right to know, and the state employee’s right to privacy,” Ballard said. “I think this will be especially impactful for increasing confidence in our state’s teachers and law enforcement. We’ve heard about the ‘dance of the lemons,’ where bad teachers or officers get passed from job to job, with little to no information about their prior performance. Senate Bill 355 allows the public to see those records and hold officials accountable.”
Rep. Ray Pickett (R–Blowing Rock) said he has looked some at the bill, but because it could change a lot before it comes to the House of Representatives, he didn’t say if he supported it or opposed the bill. He did say he liked that it would make the government more transparent.
“It’s just more transparency, and you can’t have enough of that in government,” Pickett said.
Regarding potential issues, Fuller said there are no major issues aside from public and privacy considerations that various groups might raise.
“One thing that will be important if this bill passes is for public bodies to put a lot of effort into enhancing their record keeping and disclosure practices so the public can get this information quickly,” Fuller said.
Gene Fowler, publisher of Mountain Times Publications, said he supports the bill.
“If they are state employees, we need to be able to know about those things,” Fowler said. “It’s something that the North Carolina Press Association stands behind, and so do we.”
The North Carolina Association of Broadcasters and NCPA have also endorsed the bill and “its goal of increasing the citizenry’s access to information about the actions and performance of public employees whose salaries are paid with taxpayer dollars.”
“North Carolina’s public records laws have long trailed the vast majority of states when it comes to providing access to state and local government personnel hiring, firing and performance records, which are vital to the public’s right to know,” the two organizations said in a release. “Passage of Senate Bill 355 can only inspire public confidence in North Carolina’s government.”
The full bill — which was sent to the judiciary committee on March 31 — can be found at www.ncleg.gov/BillLookUp/2021/SB%20355.