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Edwards signs on to bill improving public records access

State Sen. Chuck Edwards is a sponsor of bill that would strengthen North Carolina's public records law.

North Carolina taxpayers will have access to the reasons why government employees are hired, fired, promoted, demoted or suspended if a bill proposed in the state Legislature and cosponsored by state Sen. Chuck Edwards becomes law.

Senate Bill 355, the Government Transparency Act of 2021, was filed in the N.C. General Assembly in March. If passed, the bill would require state and local government agencies to keep and make public personnel records that are now hidden from the view of taxpayers.
Edwards said he cosponsored the bill because it is in keeping with his general philosophy that employees who serve the public and are in the public eye should be subject to the scrutiny of taxpayers.

“I believe it is vitally important that our citizens can see certain personnel records of state employees,” another cosponsor, Sen. Lisa Stone Barnes, R-Nash, told the Rocky Mount Telegram. “After all, their taxes help pay the salary of these employees. There are very real problems that exist in school and law enforcement hiring, where bad apples get passed from job to job with little to no explanation to the public. This bill would give North Carolinians a glimpse into the actions of a state employee, which will help citizens have more confidence in their government.”
Primary sponsors of the bill are Republican Sens. Bill Rabon, the chamber’s Rules Committee chairman, Norm Sanderson and Joyce Krawiec.
“The bill has a lot of support within our caucus — and the primary sponsors are passionate about the issue, so I expect we will hear it in the Senate,” Barnes said. “I can’t speak to the House. Transparency and open government are bipartisan issues, and I believe this bill is a good first step.”

Rep. Tim Moffitt, a Republican who represents Henderson County, and the House’s deputy Republican Conference chairman, was not ready to commit to the bill.
“As a general practice, I don’t comment publicly on Senate bills until they hit the house,” he said. Moffitt added that government should be as transparent as possible. If the bill clears the Senate, the earliest it might be considered in the House would be near the end of May, he said.
The bill, known in full as an “An Act to Strengthen Confidence in Government by Increasing Accessibility To Public Personnel Hiring, Firing and Performance Records,” requires that state and local government agencies in North Carolina, including law enforcement and schools, keep and make public records concerning the performance of employees.
Among other things, the bill makes public the “date and general description of the reasons for each promotion, demotion, dismissal, transfer, suspension, separation or other change in position classification” in government agencies.
If an employee is dismissed, the bill also makes public a copy of a written notice of the final decision of the head of the agency setting forth the specific acts or omissions that were the basis of the dismissal.
A tweet from a lobbyist for the State Employees Association charged that the bill opens up state employee personnel files to gossip and innuendo.
“To open up everybody’s personnel files so the person in the next cubicle can read it any time they want to is not a narrowly tailored response,” the tweet said.
Edwards declined to comment on the tweet, saying he had not seen it. He said he has only heard from members of the news media who are interested in the bill.
A statement from the N.C. Press Association calls Senate Bill 355 one of the most important transparency bills in recent history and its introduction in the state legislature a cause for celebration. The statement also notes that access to similar personnel information is guaranteed by law in states surrounding North Carolina and in 35 other states in the nation.
“Unfortunately, for as long as anyone can remember, North Carolinians have been forced to suffer under the weight of one of the worst public records laws in the country,” the NCPA said. “For more than 50 years, transparency of North Carolina government has been badly hindered by the lack of public access to arguably the most important government records, those surrounding the hiring, promotion, suspension, demotion, termination or discipline of state and local government employees,” according to the press association’s statement.
“Thanks to Senate Bill 355, we now have the chance to crack the door ever so slightly to allow the public to learn the reasons for terminating, promoting, suspending, demoting or disciplining a government employee. From our perspective, it is a sea change long overdue, and the North Carolina Press Association strongly supports the bill.”

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Disclosure: As chair of the NCPA’s Legislative Committee, Hendersonville Lightning editor Bill Moss is part of a team that is advocating for passage of the Government Transparency Act.