Bill would dial back access to records

Staff WriterMay 15, 2011 

  • The personnel law makes public:

    All pay increases and decreases.

    Dismissal letters that represent the final decision of the department, agency or government entity. The letters shall provide the "acts or omissions" that were the basis for the dismissal.

    All promotions, demotions, suspensions, transfers and other position changes.

    All demotions and suspensions that are for disciplinary reasons.

    A general description for each promotion.

Since a recent law opened personnel records, the public has learned details about untrustworthy cops and an administrator who received tens of thousands of dollars in pay members of his board said they didn't know about.

But municipal groups representing counties, sheriffs and school boards say much of that information should no longer be public, and they have persuaded a powerful state senator to help them.

State Sen. Pete Brunstetter's bill would prevent the release of dismissal letters written before the new law, and would no longer require them to be written for "at will" employees such as sheriff's deputies and teacher assistants who work at the pleasure of their bosses. His bill would also prevent disclosure of disciplinary actions - dismissals, demotions and suspensions - before the law's change, and limit the release of historical salary data to Oct. 1, 2007.

Brunstetter, a Winston-Salem Republican and former Forsyth County commissioners chairman, said his bill is an attempt to clarify what the new law, passed in the 2010 session, was intended to do. He is a chief budget writer and chairman of the judiciary committee that typically handles ethics and open government matters.

The law has produced revelatory information:

Charlotte reported that six police officers had been fired in the past five years for misbehavior such as domestic assault, lying in court and filing a false police report. The officer who lied in court caused the dismissal of more than 100 cases because of credibility problems. The Charlotte Observer won the records' release.

The state Highway Patrol had to disclose a prior disciplinary suspension for a trooper who resigned in June after being accused of unlawfully detaining an N.C. State University student and exposing himself. When the trooper, Larry Lovick, pleaded guilty to felonious restraint in February, the patrol produced details of the suspension: Lovick had torn up a traffic ticket after asking a motorist to lift her shirt so he could see a lower-back tattoo.

Greenville resident Terry Boardman used the new law to find out why James Turcotte, the former local airport authority director, had one of the highest public pensions in the state at nearly $174,000. Boardman received records showing that Turcotte's salary had been augmented by tens of thousands of dollars over the past decade that members of the airport board said they knew nothing about. His annual pay was nearly $258,000 when he retired, roughly $45,000 more than the directors at the much-larger Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte airports.

Little of this information would have been public record if Brunstetter's bill had been law.

Brunstetter said local governments are complaining that it's burdensome to produce salary and employment histories for some workers that could stretch back decades. He said the new law also could create an expectation that "at will" employees would be entitled to an explanation for their dismissal, opening the door to litigation.

He said the new law could put agencies in a difficult position if they released a dismissal letter for other former employees without giving them a chance to clear themselves in an internal hearing.

Seeking a limit

It's clear that many officials in state and local agencies that oversee employee matters do not like the new law.

Shortly after the personnel law's passage, they sought to limit its reach by seeking a restrictive interpretation from the state Attorney General's Office. They asked, for example, whether the law only covered personnel actions that happened after the law's start date.

But the attorney general provided little help. The opinion, released in November, said the law required the release of all dismissal letters, and required state and local agencies to write them for any firings made after Oct. 1, 2010, the day the new law took effect. The opinion also said that all disciplinary suspensions and demotions are now matters of public record, as are salary and position histories for state and local employees.

The opinion provided one benefit to state and local governments: They do not have to create dismissal letters and other personnel records in cases where none existed before the new law took effect.

Beth Grace, executive director of the N.C. Press Association, said Brunstetter's bill would shut down information the public needs to hold government accountable.

"The public pays for government - the public hires these officials, in effect," she said. "I don't know anyone in a job who doesn't have to answer to their boss, and I don't know why these public officials would feel that they don't have to answer to the public, or go out of their way to try to conceal this information."

Fear of lawsuits

Representatives for the counties, school boards and teachers say the law has too wide a reach.

Leanne Winner, a lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association, said it is unfair to employees who agreed to be dismissed under the presumption that the terms of the dismissal would be kept secret. In some cases, she said the school district pledged not to make that information public in order to get the employee to leave.

"We're going to end up with lawsuits, and we're going to end up with requests that we don't know what to do with because we are going to have binding agreements," she said.

Since the law makes public all pay increases and decreases, and all position changes such as promotions and demotions, she said a request for an entire school district could result in hundreds of paper file searches at taxpayer expense to compile the information if a district had not entered it into a database.

For years, state and local government officials and employee groups resisted efforts to open up the personnel law. As a result, North Carolina until last year had one of the most secretive personnel laws in the nation. The News & Observer found North Carolina was the only state that prevented the release of salary histories.

Two other bills before the legislature would expand the amount of information the public could learn about employees. The bills would provide explanations for disciplinary actions and make public all records pertaining to employee performance. The bills also would penalize officials who fail to release records that are clearly public under the law.

One of the sponsors, state Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican, said the corruption cases in state and local government over the past decade have convinced him that the public needs more information about personnel matters. He cited the former administrator for the New Hanover Alcoholic Beverage Control Board as an example of what can go wrong when the public lacks access to personnel information.

The administrator, Billy Williams, was the best-paid in the state for his position, making $232,000 a year. He is accused in a fraud case of spending $43,000 in county money for work on his home.

"It's the people's money. You work for them. They have the right to know," Goolsby said. "If you don't like that, then don't work here."

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

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