Amendment could add to state secrecy

The House approves shielding information unless a state employee has been convicted.

Staff WriterJuly 8, 2010 

Tuesday morning, the state House and Senate appeared to be in sync on legislation that would take big steps in disclosing information about disciplined employees.

Their bills would make public salary and employment histories and the reasons why employees are fired, demoted or suspended.

But then Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat, proposed an amendment that has the potential to conceal personnel matters more than the current law, which is among the most secretive in the nation. The amendment, which easily passed the House on Tuesday, stipulates that public agencies can only identify whether someone is demoted, transferred, suspended or fired if that person is convicted of a crime.

Now, the most recent such personnel action is public.

Further, in all other cases, the amendment allows government agencies to merely provide the date of a personnel action, without saying what it is, according to John Bussian, a lobbyist for the N.C. Press Association, which includes The News & Observer.

Open government advocates were surprised by the changes.

Joe Sinsheimer, a former Democratic consultant turned government watchdog, said of Ross: "To see somebody that thoughtful be that ridiculous is just discouraging to me."

The proposed changes to the personnel law are part of a broader bill aimed at strengthening state ethics laws. The House and Senate have differences on the bill; on Wednesday, the Senate sent it to a committee for more work. House leaders said they would take another look at Ross' amendment when the different versions go to a conference committee.

Ross said Wednesday that she didn't intend for the bill to limit information about personnel action to the date they occurred. She said her amendment should be fixed so it is clear that agencies have to report that an employee was fired, demoted, transferred or suspended.

Ross and other House Democrats said the amendment was an attempt to balance the public's right to know about public employee misdeeds with the privacy rights of those employees. The lawmakers said they were responding to concerns from employee groups such as the State Employees Association of North Carolina, the N.C. Association of Educators and the Office of State Personnel.

"What I'm saying is when there is a disciplinary action or a demotion, there should be due process before it becomes public information," Ross said.

Linda Coleman, state personnel director, said it's unfair to state employees to make public the details of firings, demotions and suspensions before the employees have had a chance to appeal. She and employee group representatives said there's a disparity among agencies as to how personnel matters are handled.

But they also acknowledged that once an agency has completed the disciplinary action, the employee's path toward an appeal typically is in a public venue - the Office ofAdministrative Hearings.

The cases that wouldn't be public would be the employees who admit misconduct, or who decide they won't fight the disciplinary action.

Ross said her amendment serves to open more personnel information. For example, agencies would have to release more information about employees who are promoted.

But it has been the lack of information about employee misconduct that has caused problems.

State Highway Patrol Troop Commander James Williams Jr., for example, was fired after driving drunk April 3. A Butner police officer pulled Williams over but did not charge him with driving under the influence. The officer and two others chose to take Williams to a hotel to let him sleep it off. Highway Patrol officials did not confirm the details of the internal investigation until police radio traffic, obtained under a public records request, showed what had happened.

Under Ross' amendment, patrol officials would not be required to explain why Williams is no longer on the force because no charges were filed.

"Setting the bar on criminal convictions, and nothing more, arguably is a step backwards from what the current law is," Bussian said.

dan.kane @newsobserver.com or 919-829-4861

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