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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Davis case shows weakness in NC public records law

The lawsuit filed by the Asheville Citizen-Times seeking access to personnel records and a lawsuit settlement has demonstrated yet again how badly North Carolina's Public Records Law needs to be fixed.

The Asheville newspaper sued to break open the settlement that former Sheriff Rick Davis authorized after a deputy threatened to sue him over actions he took "while on duty." An order granting that part of the newspaper's request by Superior Court Judge Mark Powell sheds a little more light on the case than existed before.
Powell reviewed two documents in chambers, one a letter from a female deputy to Henderson County Attorney Russ Burrell detailing the charges and threatening to sue, the other the settlement, for which Henderson County paid a $5,000 insurance deductible. No one has been able to discover the amount.
To his credit, Powell has ruled that the settlement is a public document and must be released. The letter from the deputy, alleging improper actions by the sheriff or someone under his command, remains a secret, protected by North Carolina's overly high personnel record wall.
The matter comes as a recent study showed that North Carolina's open records law as one of the worst in the country. The study by the State Integrity Investigation found that North Carolina public record law fails to provide an appeals process aside from expensive and time-consuming lawsuits, which citizens and increasingly news organizations are unwilling to finance.
States like Florida and Ohio allow the public to see personnel files almost in their entirety, excluding some protected health information. Even if North Carolina did not go that far, it ought to add a trigger for openness of a personnel file and internal investigations when wrongdoing is substantiated, which tacitly it is by the settlement of a lawsuit.
The litany of cases in Henderson County alone that cry out for openness is long and shameful: a teachers' aide is convicted of 63 counts of molesting children and sent off to die in prison, yet his personnel remains locked away; a mid-level clerk embezzles more than $100,000 from Henderson County schools, yet her personnel record remains closed; a Hendersonville police officer is fired and two others are disciplined for a reckless shooting in Green Meadows, yet an internal investigation remains a secret; and so on.
Democrats in the General Assembly were too deep in the pocket of the schoolteachers and the local government lobbyists in Raleigh to confront the issue. The new Republican majority is not. It should fix the public records law so the public can learn the details of official wrongdoing and find out whether supervisors were doing their job.