Open up the records of public employees
Last July, The Smoky Mountain News produced a series of stories looking into police reform following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and other incidents of violence by law enforcement officers. One of the takeaways from that reporting was that good law enforcement officers are, perhaps, more critical of bad cops than the general public.
Former Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton had this to say in one of our stories: “Things do happen, and when they do, we definitely have to make sure we have all systems in place to make sure bad cops don’t get to continue being cops, or go free. Nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop.”
That’s a prime example of why it’s critical that the North Carolina Legislature passes the Government Transparency Act of 2021 (Senate Bill 355), a law that would open the personnel files of public employees who are paid by taxpayers. The bill would allow the public to see the reason for hirings, firings, demotions and promotions, opening a window into the management of public personnel and the decisions around their job performance.
It’s easy to see how this would benefit the citizens of North Carolina who pay the salaries of these employees. A teacher may be forced to resign because of inappropriate texts or suggestive remarks to a student, but the school system — and the parents — one county away wouldn’t know that when that prospective teacher applied for a job there. When you are a public employee, you are accountable to the taxpayer. Period. We should know how the people we pay to carry out government duties behave.
What about aggressive behavior or excessive force by a police officer? In many cases his boss would force that officer to resign or get fired, and so he or she walks away without any charges. When that officer applies for a job elsewhere, that police chief has no knowledge of the bad behavior.
That’s why 36 other states already make this information public. Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Ohio, and Texas allow access to virtually the entire public employee personnel file (minus social security and bank account numbers and the like). Thirty more states offer access to reasons for disciplinary actions like those contained in SB 355.
In those states, superintendents, sheriffs and police chiefs can make better hiring decisions because they have open access to the employee files from their previous job. Also, school boards and town boards whose job it is to hire leaders like superintendents and police chiefs can look into their personnel records. Unfortunately, groups such as the North Carolina Association of Educators, the State Employees Association of North Carolina and the Teamsters Union are lobbying against passage of this bill. They say it is unconstitutional despite the fact that sponsors listened to their issues and made changes to the bill. What do they have to hide? What is the value in keeping performance records hidden from view?
In most instances, teachers, law enforcement officers and other public employees are dedicated public servants who take great pride in their jobs. Passage of this bill would reaffirm this, signaling that the state is serious about weeding out the bad apples while acknowledging that they have confidence in these public servants.
North Carolina has one of the worst public records laws in the nation, and passage of this bill would change that. Sen. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, has so far expressed support for the bill, as has Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City. Let’s hope Rep. Mark Pless, R-Canton, joins them and this long overdue measure becomes law.