A benefit of sunshine is that it increases visual contrasts between objects and adds light in areas that deserve attention. That is the purpose, figuratively speaking, of “Sunshine Week” as the nation celebrates the public’s right to know and to hold their government, at every level from local to national, accountable.
It is coincidental that two legislative bills being introduced this week in the N.C. General Assembly highlight the very contrast that Sunshine Week is designed to show. Senate Bill 300, introduced at the urging of N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, restricts access to professional job performance records through the establishment of a special oversight committee. In contrast, the Government Transparency Act of 2021 co-sponsored by Republicans Sen. Norman Sanderson, representing the 2nd senate district of Carteret, Craven and Pamlico Counties, along with Sen. Bill Rabon of Brunswick County, representing the 8th district, will open professional job performance records for public access.
For over 50 years the public and even other state departments have been restricted or denied access to important records that should be public- records involving professional performance resulting in the hiring, promotion, suspension, demotion, termination or disciplinary action. In comparison, public access to these employment records- vital to holding public officials from teachers to law enforcement officers accountable- is guaranteed in 35 other states, including all of our neighboring states.
Sanderson’s and Rabon’s bill will reverse these restrictions, providing needed access to both the public and other government departments that have been denied. Sen. Sanderson noted in a recent radio interview on the TalkStation, WTKF/WJNC, that the public has both a right and a need to know about the actions of public employees and that access to this information will enhance confidence in government, at every level.
In an odd twist of thinking on the subject, other General Assembly members introduced Senate Bill 300 at the urging of Attorney General Stein that continues the culture of secrecy surrounding government employee misconduct records. This bill creates a pair of databases containing law enforcement disciplinary and use-of-force incident records available only to law enforcement agencies and special appointed committees, but not to the public.
The idea behind the Stein bill is the polar opposite of government transparency. These state criminal justice sector databases would be created under the guise of criminal justice reform that misleadingly claims to improve visibility of records on wayward law enforcement officers. But by barring the public from seeing these records, something routinely done in 40 states, North Carolinians will remain in the dark about the records of those who police their streets and manage their state and local law enforcement agencies.
The Attorney General’s bill is a secrecy bill, not a transparency bill.
At the end of the day, what is our government trying to hide in refusing to make public the reasons for disciplining, suspending, demoting, or even firing government officials?
Instead of inspiring public confidence in government, blocking public access to government personnel records of this kind simply creates suspicion. The resulting distrust erodes our public institutions, which are staffed by and large with principled and dedicated people whose outstanding performance should be recognized and rewarded. Unfortunately, the actions of a few diminish the successes of the many.
We appreciate the Republicans in the North Carolina Senate who are behind the real government transparency bill and who have come to understand that the culture of secrecy that underlies government employee personnel records in our state is a public policy that needs to change. The current policy prevents all North Carolinians from being equipped with information necessary to separate good teachers and law enforcement officers from bad ones.
But the winds may be shifting. Unlike the criminal justice “reform” bill backed by AG Stein, Sen. Sanderson’s leadership for Government Transparency Act of 2021 is charting a course that is renewing the public’s confidence in government. It’s high time.