Three Wilmington police officers were fired last year after video footage from one officer’s cruiser revealed they had made a slew of racist and hate-filled remarks. Employee records later showed that two of those three officers had been demoted or terminated by the Wilmington Police Department before, but the reasons for those disciplinary actions aren’t public record.
Now, a bill to make disciplinary records of government employees in North Carolina more public seems to be catching a second wind in the state legislature.
Current law requires the “general description of the reasons” for a government employee’s promotion to be public record in North Carolina. That means that as it stands now, public officials — including law enforcement, teachers and school administrators — can be demoted, suspended or transferred without the public ever knowing why. (A 2010 law made public whether employees had been suspended or demoted, but it doesn’t require a description of the reasons.)
The Government Transparency Act of 2021 would expand this requirement to provide the general descriptions for demotions, transfers, suspensions, separations and dismissals. It would apply to all current and former state employees, local government employees and public school employees.
The bill has had a long, hard journey in the legislature this session — two different iterations of the bill have been passed between the House and Senate, ultimately landing in conference committees. Floor votes have fallen mostly along party lines, with Democrats largely voting against the legislation.
The vast majority of state employees, who conduct their jobs properly and with integrity, wouldn’t be affected by the legislation. Still, there are a handful who don’t. Those employees ought to be accountable to the public, whose taxes pay their salaries. That accountability is not as certain if key information about their job performance is shrouded in secrecy.
Those who oppose the bill, including the State Employees Association of North Carolina and the North Carolina Association of Educators, have expressed concerns that the bill would allow unfair or unfounded accusations to be made public, jeopardizing due process. Those objections are valid, but employee privacy and government transparency don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The bill’s language has been tweaked to reflect those worries; the most recent version would not make the reasons for a negative job change public until the appeals process has been completed.
The bill is a step toward a more transparent and open government, something all of North Carolina should favor. North Carolina lags other states in public records access and government transparency; our state is in the bottom five states in the country when it comes to the public’s right to see basic records of disciplinary actions taken against government employees, according to the North Carolina Press Association, which supports the bill. It’s not a radical approach — this right of access already exists in the majority of states.
The effort to make this information public has been underway for quite a while — legislation of this nature has been introduced several times in the last 24 years. A similar bill from 1997, called the “Discipline Disclosure Act,” would have made public disciplinary records of certain state employees, including state agencies and the UNC System. Though it failed to become law, it was sponsored by none other than Gov. Roy Cooper, who was a state senator at the time. Another bill, sponsored by Republicans, failed in 2011.
“I’m glad to work with the legislature on this legislation. I do believe that transparency is important,” Cooper said of HB 64 in June, saying he’d “see what [lawmakers] pass” before making a decision.
Lawmakers should pass this bill before the session ends, and Cooper should sign it. Without transparency, there is no accountability. The public has a right to know how their money is spent — North Carolina shouldn’t wait any longer to join the ranks of other states whose public records laws already allow that.