NC Senate bill would make more government worker information public

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — More details about why North Carolina state and local government employees and educators were demoted, suspended or transferred would be made public under legislation that cleared a Senate committee on Tuesday.

The measure, backed by the North Carolina Press Association, advanced through the committee by a voice vote. Members from both parties questioned whether worker privacy would be violated and employees opened up to underhanded allegations by supervisors.

The bill sponsor said some concerns would be addressed should it reach the Senate floor. But they don’t change the need for making more details in personnel records available for public review, GOP Sen. Norm Sanderson of Pamlico County said.

“The general attitude in the public right now almost demands that state government become more transparent,” Sanderson told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I think we see a lot of the unrest in our state and in our nation is due to the fact that we try sometimes to keep things that should be made known to the public, but we try to keep them secret.”

The bill, which also would have to pass the House to reach Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, would expand information that government employers would have to disclose to the media or citizens in response to personnel records requests.

Current state law already makes some information in personnel records public, including a worker’s name, age, current salary, salary increases and the “general description of the reasons for each promotion.” The bill would require a similar general description for the reasons for demotions, dismissals, transfers or suspensions.

An agency’s final written explanation about why someone has been fired must also be provided when requested, under current state law. Sanderson said the additional information would shine a light on bad apples within government agencies who are otherwise getting moved from office to office.

Thirty-five states already provide this level of personnel records to the public, said John Bussian, an N.C. Press Association attorney. Efforts to seek the disclosure of more personnel details go back almost 25 years, according to Sanderson. Cooper filed a personnel disclosure bill while a state senator in 1997.

The current bill “was drafted this way to try to get at some disclosure — just a little bit of disclosure — for reasons for adverse employment actions from state employees all the way to local,” Bussian said.

Former Burlington Times-News publisher Paul Mauney told committee members about the newspaper’s failed attempts to get at reasons why a local school system superintendent was terminated and received a six-digit payment as she left.

The measure also would apply to the University of North Carolina system, community colleges, sheriff’s deputies and police officers and regional agencies that manage patients who receive mental and substance abuse treatment.

Some senators are worried the “general description” author could sow mischief. “They can write it in a benign way or they can write it in a salacious way,” said Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican. “I think we ought to think about the supervisor that has agendas.” Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, also said she was worried a description could include health details that violate a person’s privacy.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina opposes the bill in its current form, saying its members could be wrongly impugned while they fight a demotion or firing they consider unjustified.

“This comes down to constitutional rights,” SEANC Executive Director Ardis Watkins said. “Due process rights would be violated if someone had not exhausted all the remedies available to them by law.” Bussian said most concerns raised by Watkins and others have been addressed in court and in other states.

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