Editorial: Democracy needs sunshine
Something is amiss in the Salisbury Fire Department, as evidenced by the dismissal of two firefighters this month. City officials have been slow to divulge information, but the law is on the side of sunshine. State personnel laws now require that the public get a form of explanation.
It hasnít always been this way. For years citizens have been left in the dark when teachers, cops, firefighters and other government employees were involved in controversy. State laws hid nearly all personnel information behind a wall of confidentiality, and powerful government employee groups encouraged lawmakers to keep it that way.
Frustrated citizens finally got through to their elected representatives in 2010. We want to know whatís going on, and now personnel laws give us that right.
The buy-in by public officials has been slow. At first City Hall would say only that firefighters Courtney Brown and Baxter ěBuddyî Miller were no longer with the fire department ó without indicating if they resigned or were dismissed. But state law is clear; the public must have access to the date and type of each promotion, demotion, transfer, suspension, separation, or other change in position classification. Friday evening the city relented on this point and released records showing the two had been dismissed.
Why were they dismissed? The city is keeping the citizenry in suspense ó and awash in rumors ó a little longer. ěBelieve me, we appreciate the Postís interest in reporting public record information about city employees,î City Manager David Treme said in an e-mail Friday, ěbut at the same time we must not ignore our obligations to deal fairly with employees involved and to allow them the opportunity to request review of actions that are not yet final actions.î
When the employeesí appeal periods end and the firings are final, the city has some explaining to do. Fortunately, Attorney General Roy Cooper issued a memo last November spelling out the process. When a dismissal occurs, the public is to have access to ěa copy of the written notice of the final decision of the public employer setting forth the specific acts or omissions that are the basis of the dismissal.î
The written notices City Hall shares probably will be brief. If they are also vague, the city will be testing the publicís trust. ěSpecific acts or omissionsî leaves little room for ambiguity.
More than 28,000 city residents rely on the Salisbury Fire Department for fire protection and help in emergencies. Our hearts broke when two firefighters died in a city fire in 2008; they were serving the city. And now weíre puzzled by sudden, unexplained changes in the department many have come to hold dear. By and large, our public servants are good people who act with professionalism and integrity. They deserve a public explanation as much as taxpayers do. The longer questions go unanswered, the more suspicious the public grows.
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