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Guest columnists: Newspaper publishers back bill that would open state, local government personnel records

By Paul Mauney and Bill Moss

Last week, many newspapers wrapped up coverage of Sunshine Week, a time set aside to promote government accountability through public records and public meetings. In North Carolina, the idea of sunshine has been more aspirational than reality-based. Now though, there is greater cause for celebration than we have seen in a long time, thanks to the introduction on Thursday of Senate Bill 355 — The Government Transparency Act of 2021.

Primary sponsors of this monumental bill, Sens. Norman Sanderson (R-Carteret, Craven, Pamlico); Bill Rabon (R-Bladen, Brunswick, New Hanover, Pender); and Joyce Krawiec (R-Davie, Forsyth), have filed one of the most important transparency bills in recent history. By providing meaningful public access to personnel records of state and local government employees, the bill would allow North Carolinians to hold elected leaders accountable for the first time when it comes to hiring, firing and other personnel action.

Unfortunately, for as long as anyone can remember, North Carolinians have been forced to suffer under the weight of one of the worst public records laws in the country.  For more than 50 years, transparency of  North Carolina government has been badly hindered by the lack of public access to arguably the most important government records, those surrounding the hiring, promotion, suspension, demotion, termination or discipline of state and local government employees.   And yet public access to these records — vital to holding public officials from teachers to law enforcement officers accountable— is guaranteed by the law in the states surrounding North Carolina and some 35 others.

Thanks to Senate Bill 355 we now have the chance to crack the door ever so slightly to allow the public to learn the reasons for terminating, promoting, suspending, demoting or disciplining a government employee. From our perspective, it is a sea change long overdue, and the North Carolina Press Association strongly supports the bill.  

This true transparency bill stands in stark contrast to so-called criminal justice “reform” bills already filed this legislative session. That piece of legislation would create a pair of databases containing law enforcement disciplinary and use-of-force incident records that law enforcement agencies would see, but not the public. The bill does nothing to breach the wall that prevents the public from knowing, for instance, that officers with a record of misconduct have been passed from agency to agency or from finding out why a division captain was demoted to patrol officer.

At the end of the day, what is our government trying to hide in refusing to make public the reasons for disciplining, suspending, demoting, or even firing government officials?

Instead of inspiring public confidence in government, blocking  public access to government personnel records of this kind simply creates suspicion.  And that erodes our public institutions, which are staffed by and large with principled and dedicated people.

We are thankful that these three veteran Republican members of the North Carolina Senate understand that the culture of secrecy that barricades government employee personnel records in our state is public policy that fails the public. The current policy prevents all North Carolinians from being equipped with information necessary to separate good teachers and law enforcement officers from bad ones. But the winds may be shifting and we say, it’s high time.

Paul Mauney is regional president of Adams Publishing Group’s news publications in North Carolina and serves as president of the North Carolina Press Association.

Bill Moss is publisher and editor of Hendersonville Lightning and hendersonvillelightning.com, a weekly newspaper and website serving Western North Carolina and is chair of the North Carolina Press Association’s Legislative Committee.

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