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Guest columnist: Senate Bill 355 provides for much-needed transparency

By Lockwood Phillips

Senate Bill 355, legislation that promotes and enhances public access to the performance records of public employees, is generating significant resistance from various state organizations that have several things in common — they are all union-related and determined to continue operating without public scrutiny.

The Government Transparency Act of 2021, championed by Sen. Norman Sanderson, a Republican representing the 2nd Senate District of Carteret, Craven and Pamlico Counties, generated a major letter-writing and phone campaign to state senators demanding that they vote against the act when it is brought to floor.

This aggressive opposition raises several questions. What is there to hide? And why should the employers, N.C. taxpayers, be denied access to the performance records of their employees?

Opposition to the bill became apparent when it was first presented to the Senate’s Judiciary Committee in late April. Sen. Sanderson, committee co-chair along with Sen. Danny Britt, R-Columbus County, made the presentation at that meeting since he is a co-sponsor of the bill. During his report, he had to aggressively defend the bill as several Republican senators presented challenges on behalf of several state organizations that operate as quasi-unions.

That opposition ratcheted up during a second hearing before the Judiciary Committee and during a Senate Rules Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick County, also a co-sponsor of the bill. The effort has now turned into an onslaught of calls to legislators demanding a “No” vote.

In a Judicial Committee meeting, the state’s two largest employee unions, the State Employees Association of N.C. (SEANC) and the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) were joined by the Teamsters Union, Local 391 and the N.C. Justice Center declaring that the bill is unconstitutional.

While both SEANC and NCAE are chapters of national unions, the legislature does not contract with official union organization and these two organizations avoid that description in all their formal documents. It is, however, worth noting that they were joined in their complaint by one of the largest unions in the country — the Teamsters.

A letter signed jointly by Ardis Watkins of SEANC; Tamika Walker Kelly, representing NCAE; Michael McGaha, president of Teamsters Local 391 and Rick Glazer of the N.C. Justice Center, applauds the efforts “at transparency and openness” but then argues that the bill will “embroil the state in lawsuits” on the supposition that it will result in public employees being “subject to gossip and innuendo and difficulties finding future employment.”

On the contrary, access to state employee professional performance will assure that accurate information is always available, thereby diminishing gossip and innuendo, which is usually the result of cloistered information.

In yet another letter being mailed to state senators, the NCAE complains that S.B. 355 “expands public access to personnel records of public employees to an inappropriate level far beyond what is expected in any other state.” This, too, is inaccurate considering that 36 other states have codified access to employee records and in many cases require full disclosure of all reports and documentation.

The bill does not interfere with existing statutes or agency procedures establishing procedures for employees seeking due process in cases of contested dismissal or other corrective actions. Language has been added in the bill prohibiting disclosure of personal medical information and safeguarding privacy rights of employee through procedures that are well-known to public sector lawyers. All of which answer the complaints of the opposing organizations and in fact strengthens the protections they contend are important.

The joint letter signed by SEANC, NCAE, the Justice Center and the Teamsters, admonishes the senate, noting, “The state- and you as its elected leadership- must remember that you are the employer here…. As the employer, the state has an obligation to protect the constitutional rights  of the people affected by this bill.”

There is no question constitutional rights should be protected. And those rights belong to the very people who are responsible and they are, as this letter correctly notes, the citizens of the state, for whom these employees work.

As John Bussian, a Raleigh based media lawyer representing the N.C. Press Association, has stated in defending the legislation, “A general description of the reasons for demotions, suspensions and termination have been kept secret from the public for too long.”

He is correct. We, the state, have a responsibility to assure our services are being provided professionally and appropriately. We cannot do that without full transparency. S.B. 355 will go a long way to assure that we begin to fulfill our constitutional responsibilities.

Phillips is publisher and owner of the Carteret County News-Times.

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