History-making access to government records now within reach

By SANDY HURLEY and BILL MOSS
Posted 9/28/21

When the 2021 session of the General Assembly began, passage of legislation to advance public access to records of disciplinary actions taken by those employed by taxpayers in state and local …

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History-making access to government records now within reach

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When the 2021 session of the General Assembly began, passage of legislation to advance public access to records of disciplinary actions taken by those employed by taxpayers in state and local government seemed like a longshot. Improved access to public employee personnel records had been more aspirational than reality-based. But gaining that access is long a priority for North Carolina newspapers on behalf of the state's residents.

Earlier this year, in Angier, the town's police chief was fired. The reason for his termination remains unknown.

After nine months of public hearings at the state Capitol, careful tweaks that preserved the legislation’s purpose and procedural moves by Senate Republicans to nudge passage of the bill — the General Assembly stands on the verge of making the most important advance in the public’s right to know in recent history: the Government Transparency Act of 2021.

It’s historic because North Carolina state law has kept the public in the dark about state and local government personnel employee misconduct like almost no other state.

Currently North Carolina is in the bottom five states in the country when it comes to the taxpayers’ right to see basic records of disciplinary actions taken against state and local government employees — everyone from public school teachers and administrators to law enforcement officers. Opening these records would hold state and local government more accountable by giving the taxpaying public a general description of the reasons for suspensions (with or without pay), transfers, demotions and terminations of public employees whose misconduct — from sexual molesting or assault of students by teachers to misuse of force by police officers — triggered the disciplinary action.

Legislative efforts have been underway for 25 years to make these records available, if for no other reason than to ensure confidence in government. And sure enough, the same groups that opposed this legislation from the outset — the state employees and public school teachers, and now the Teamsters Union — have blocked passage.

It’s unknowable how many public employees and schoolteachers actually endorse their lobbyists’ effort to keep personnel files secret. Our guess is that the vast majority of them — hard-working employees dedicated to their jobs and their communities — do not oppose unlocking the work records of those who give their profession a black eye through criminal activity, reckless action or indolence.

Now at long last, with the North Carolina Senate’s passage of the latest effort to advance this vital part of the public’s right to know — in the form of House Bill 64 — the North Carolina House of Representatives has a chance to make history. It can finish the job on this legislation by adopting the bill as drafted. And with HB 64 scheduled to be heard in the House this week — for what could be final passage — we urge North Carolinians to contact their House member and ask them to support the legislation. The bill would finally give taxpayers access to the disciplinary records they deserve to see, a right of access that has inspired confidence in government and been enjoyed by citizens in 40 other states for decades.

North Carolina’s taxpayers, after all, are the ultimate hirers and funders of rank and file local and state employees, their supervisors and the supervisors’ supervisors. Those taxpayers have a right to know what went wrong when one of their employees is shown the door.

Sandy Hurley, president of the N.C. Press Association, is the Group Regional Publisher of Mount Airy Media APG East TN/NC. Bill Moss, chair of the NCPA’s Legislative Committee, is editor and publisher of the Hendersonville Lightning.

HOW TO CONTACT YOUR REPRESENTATIVE

Senators

Sen. Jim Burgin, R-12
Representing: Harnett County and parts of Lee County
Address: 16 W. Jones St., Room 2113, Raleigh, NC 27601
Phone: 919-733-5748
Email: Jim.Burgin@ncleg.gov

Sen. Brent Jackson, R-10
Representing: Benson, Four Oaks, Roseboro, Plain View, Sampson County
Address: 16 W. Jones St., Room 2022, Raleigh, NC 27601
Phone: 919-733-5705
Email: Brent.Jackson@ncleg.gov

Sen. Sam Searcy, D-17
Representing: Fuquay-Varina, Wake County
Address: 16 W. Jones St., Room 1118, Raleigh, NC 27601
Phone: 919-733-5653
Email: Sam.Searcy@ncleg.gov

Sen. Kirk DeViere, D-19
Representing: Wade, Stedman, Eastover, Godwin, Cumberland County
Address: 300 N. Salisbury St., Room 515, Raleigh, NC 27603
Phone: 919-733-5776
Email: Kirk.deViere@ncleg.gov

Sen. Ben Clark, D-21
Representing: Spring Lake, Fort Bragg, Cumberland and Hoke counties
Address: 16 W. Jones St., Room 1117, Raleigh, NC 27601
Phone: 919-733-9349
Email: Ben.Clark@ncleg.gov

N.C. House of Representatives

Rep. Raymond E. Smith Jr., D-District 21
Representing: Spring Lake, Fort Bragg, parts of Cumberland and Hoke counties
Legislative office: 16 W. Jones St., room 2223, Raleigh, NC 27601-1096
Phone: 919-733-5863
Email: Raymond.Smith@ncleg.gov

Rep. William D. Brisson, R-District 22
Representing: Plain View, Autryville, Roseboro, Clement, part of Falcon, parts of Sampson and Bladen counties
Legislative office: 300 N. Salisbury St., room 405, Raleigh, NC 27603-5925; 919-733-5772
Mailing address: PO Box 531, Dublin, NC 28332
Phone: 910-862-7007
Email: William.Brisson@ncleg.gov

Rep. Donna McDowell White, R-26
Representing: Willow Springs, parts of Johnston County
Legislative office: 300 N. Salisbury St., room 306A2, Raleigh, NC, 27603-5925
Mailing address: PO Box 1351, Clayton, NC, 27528
Phone: 919-889-1239
Email: Donna.White@ncleg.gov

Rep. Larry C. Strickland, R-District 28
Representing: Angier, Benson, Four Oaks, parts of Johnston and Harnett counties
Legislative office: 300 N. Salisbury St., room 533, Raleigh, NC 27603-5925; 919-733-5849
Mailing address: PO Box 700, Pine Level, NC 27568
Phone: 919-632-3200
Email: Larry.Strickland@ncleg.gov

Rep. Erin Pare, R-37
Representing: Fuquay Varina
Legislative office: 16 W. Jones St., room 1209, Raleigh, NC, 27601-1096
Phone: 919-733-2962
Email: Erin.Pare@ncleg.gov

Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-42
Representing: Fort Bragg, Spring Lake, part of Cumberland County
Legislative office: 300 N. Salisbury St., room 402, Raleigh, NC 27603-5925
Mailing address: 3318 Hedgemoor Circle, Spring Lake, NC 28390
Phone: 910-497-2733
Email: Marvin.Lucas@ncleg.gov

Rep. Diane Wheatley, R-43
Representing: Linden, Godwin, Wade, parts of Falcon and Cumberland County
Legislative office: 16 W. Jones St., room 1325, Raleigh, NC 27601-1096
Phone: 919-733-5959
Email: Diane.Wheatley@ncleg.gov

Rep. John Sauls, R-51
Representing: Spout Springs, Johnsonville, Pineview, Olivia, Murchisontown, parts of Broadway, Harnett and Lee counties
Legislative office: 300 N. Salisbury St., room 408, Raleigh, NC 27603-5925
Mailing address: 2609 Wellington Drive, Sanford, NC 27330
Phone: 919-775-8033
Email: John.Sauls@ncleg.gov

Rep. Howard Penny, R-53
Representing: most of Harnett County, including Bunnlevel, Dunn, Erwin, Coats and Lillington
Legislative office: 300 N. Salisbury St., room 530, Raleigh, NC 27603-5925
Phone: 919-715-3015
Email: Howard.Penny@ncleg.gov

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