Continued resistance from certain state agencies to legislation that will enhance transparency of professional performance of state employees leaves the public, for whom these agencies and departments work, wondering what is there to hide?
Senate Bill 355, Government Transparency Act of 2021, was introduced in the legislature earlier this year by co-sponsors, Sen. Norman Sanderson (R ), representing the senate district of Carteret, Craven and Pamlico Counties, along with Sen. Bill Rabon (R ), Brunswick County and Sen. Joyce Krawiec, (R ), Forsyth County. The act would bring North Carolina into conformity with 35 other states, including the neighboring states of South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, which guarantee by law access to vital job performance records of state employees.
This latest legislative effort represents the third attempt over the past 24 years to promote greater professional performance transparency for state employees. A similar bill was first introduced in 1997, co-sponsored by then Sen. Roy Cooper, now Governor and then again in 2011. Both times vocal opposition by numerous state agencies and departments caused the legislature to hesitate and the bills simply died.
This time Sen. Sanderson stood firm in a presentation of the bill Tuesday during a meeting of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, as opponents challenged the necessity and value of the bill. He along with Sen. Danny Britt, (R), Columbus County serve as co-chairs of that committee.
Opposition to Sen. Sanderson’s presentation came primarily from the State Employees Association (SEANC). Ardis Watkins, the association’s executive director told News & Observer reporter, D.B. Vaughn, that this bill is “like using a sledgehammer to try to kill a gnat.” Ms. Watkins continued her complaint noting “it’s a far cry different to have our salary, your basic information, available to the word than to have even unfounded accusations in your file and passed around.”
In addition to the opposition stated by SEANC, there is known discord with this bill by the state’s teachers’ union, the NCAE, and hesitancy presented by the N.C. Police Benevolent Association.
Fortunately for N.C. taxpayers the political stars are lining up for this third attempt. Co-sponsor Sen. Rabon is chairman of the powerful Senate Rules committee which can move the bill quickly through the legislative process to assure it is considered before a mid-May cross-over deadline, following which no new bills can be presented. In addition to the political clout and the seeming support of the Republican leaders in the General Assembly, other agencies and departments have signed on to the bill. The N.C. Sheriffs’ Association along with the UNC System which represents 80,000 employees, both announced their support of the SB355.
Sen. Sanderson noted in his presentation to the Judiciary Committee that the bill is “still a good idea for us, because we are the people who pay state employees….and should be able to identify bad apples out there.”
This concern for identifying bad apples is justified considering recent law enforcement issues but there is more than just identifying individuals who do not meet professional standards. There is a need for the public to have trust in the system and in the process have access to the information about their employees. Despite the concerns offered by Watkins of SEANC, current law already includes disclosure of records of dismissal, suspensions and demotions but there is no disclosure of the reason which is what this Senate bill corrects.
North Carolina State Government is the state’s, and by extension the taxpayer’s, single largest employer with approximately 130,000 employees in various agencies, branches and universities.
Addressing the size of the state’s employee base, Sen. Sanderson stated, “in a system this big, people are shifted place to place instead of being fired,” and that the details showing reasons for transfer, demotion or any other professional adjustment do not always follow the employee.
But identifying the bad apples is only part of the value of this legislative initiative. John Bussian, Raleigh based media lawyer who attended the Judiciary Committee hearing to represent the N.C. Press Association, advocated for the bill noting, “Having open access to government employee performance records, especially disciplinary records, inspires confidence in state and local government.”
Mr. Bussian’s remarks hit the target. This bill is about confidence not only in the people but the agencies themselves and by extension, state government. This bill is a win for the entire state- the employees now have full disclosure when action is taken thereby reducing unwarranted and incorrect gossip; state government offices win because they now have accurate information for determining employment and management qualifications; and finally, the public wins because now there is a sense of confidence as Mr. Bussian noted.