Editorial: Don’t retreat on openness

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Scarcely a year after N.C. lawmakers expanded public access to government personnel records, itís disappointing ó but not surprising ó that efforts are under way to turn back the clock. Even as expanded sunshine laws have shed needed light on public policy matters, some officials persist in the misguided notion that people are better off being kept in the dark.
A bill proposed by Sen. Pete Brunstetter (R-Winston-Salem) would block public access to letters of dismissal and disciplinary actions that predate the 2010 law. The proposal would further draw the curtain by no longer requiring that formal letters of dismissal be written for some ěat willî employees, including teacherís assistants and sheriffís deputies, while limiting the release of salary data for individual employees.
That strikes at the spirit of the new law as well as running counter to State Attorney General Roy Cooperís ruling that it applied retroactively to information already on file, not just to personnel matters going forward.
The basis for public access to these records is simple: The information belongs to the public, not to the caretakers of the files.
In proposing these changes, Brunstetter says heís simply acting on concerns of some officials, including school board members, county commissioners and sheriffs. They argue that opening access may violate secrecy agreements made with disciplined employees who agreed to quietly resign rather than raise a stink. They also continue to argue that compliance with the law is burdensome and complicated for government agencies.
Those arguments are no more convincing now than when the new law was being debated. Personnel matters are sometimes messy and involve improprieties that officials would rather keep private. But hiding a mess doesnít make it go away. Restricting access perpetuates a culture of secrecy in which messes are more likely to occur. It also erodes trust in government.
State Sen. Thom Goolsby (R-Wilmington), sponsor of a sunshine amendment that would make access to government records and meetings a constitutional right, got it right when he explained why the public needs greater access to records: ěItís the peopleís money. You work for them. They have the right to know. If you donít like that, then donít work here.î
Expanding public access to records was a major improvement for North Carolinaís overly restrictive personnel laws. Lawmakers should resist any attempt to step back into the shadows.