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Bill would shine light on closed personnel files

From Raleigh News and Observer 

Senate Bill 355 — the Government Transparency Act of 2021 — would at last allow the public to see the disciplinary files of public employees, files that have long been held in secret in this state.

North Carolina is one of only 10 states that don’t allow access to disciplinary files. Even if a public employee commits a crime and is convicted, his or her personnel file must remain cloaked in darkness.

Such was the case of a Henderson County teacher who was convicted of sexually abusing 17 students. Because North Carolina law prevents the release of personnel files, the teacher was able to jump from job to job because no one — not even school officials who were conducting job interviews of him — could see his personnel files. He taught at six different schools before he was caught.

Minnesota is another state that doesn’t allow citizens or the press to see public employee personnel files. What if the public had been able to routinely review the files of the four officers charged in the death of George Floyd? The scrutiny would have raised questions about the officers’ conduct; plus, their supervisors would have been much more likely to take action before Floyd’s death had they known the public would hold them, too, accountable.

Officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of second-degree murder in Floyd’s death, was the subject of 15 complaints during his 19-year career with the Minnesota Police Department. He had also been involved in several officer-involved shootings, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

SB 355 wouldn’t force government agencies to release every detail in an employee’s file as some states do, but it would at least require every state and local government entity to tell the public not only when an employee is disciplined, suspended, demoted or separated from the job, but why they took action.

This has been a long time coming, but public employee organizations and others like the League of Municipalities and North Carolina Association of County Commissioners have gone to the mat to kill legislation in the past, including a similar bill introduced by Sen. Bill Rabon in 2011. A 2021 poll conducted for the North Carolina Press Association shows seven out of 10 North Carolinians believe these disciplinary records should be available to the public.

A criminal justice reform bill in this year’s General Assembly would allow only police agencies to review disciplinary files of law enforcement job candidates. That narrow definition, however, still wouldn’t allow the public to see the files of disciplined officers, and it would be business as usual for other public employees.

Taxpayers deserve to see what they’re paying for when a public employee is hired; yet, even more importantly, many of these employees are ones in which the public places a great deal of responsibility, such as police officers and teachers.

This implicit trust, in which lives are at stake in many cases, cannot be broken. When it is, the public must know.

That’s why SB 355 is one of the most important bills of this session of the General Assembly. Had laws similar to this proposed bill been enacted in places like North Carolina and Minnesota, the country wouldn’t be in turmoil over the killing of George Floyd, and 17 students who had their lives changed forever by a job-hopping rogue teacher in Henderson County would not have been harmed.