From the Editor

Drescher: Open files of political appointees

jdrescher@newsobserver.comJune 14, 2013 

Gov. Pat McCrory wants to raise the limit on political appointees in state government from 1,000 to 1,500.

During the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bev Perdue, the limit was 400. Republicans in the legislature, smelling a McCrory victory that would elect a Republican governor for the first time in 20 years in North Carolina, raised the limit last year to 1,000. These jobs would be exempt from the civil service protections of the State Personnel Act.

Perdue and former Gov. Mike Easley each used 375 exempt positions. McCrory says he needs to raise the limit to 1,500 to have more flexibility to manage his workforce. Critics say it would increase political patronage and harm employees trying to do their jobs without political interference.

I’ll let others debate whether state government needs an increase in political appointees. But if McCrory and legislators want to expand the number of political employees, they ought to open state personnel records and raise public confidence that the top-paid employees are meeting professional standards.

The Goolsby-Collins bills

Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, and Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, have sponsored bills that would give the public access to public employee hiring, firing and on-the-job performance records. More than 25 states give access to these records.

Under current law in North Carolina, if a public employee gets suspended, demoted or resigns after wrongdoing, you have no access to the employee’s personnel file. That enables dishonest or incompetent employees to move from one public agency to the next. Sometimes those employees work with children or vulnerable adults.

The Goolsby-Collins bills also would open hiring records such as resumes, applications and reference letters. Those records can show if a person is being hired based on professional qualifications or political connections. Opening those hiring records also would show if an employee has ties to a previous employer that could present a conflict of interest while working for the state.

The Goolsby-Collins bills would apply to all public employees in North Carolina. Those bills remain in committee and are effectively dead for this session.

But legislation to raise the number of political appointees to 1,500 has passed the House and is alive.

McCrory’s inclinations

Even supporters of that measure must admit that expanding the number of political appointees could be abused and could lead to more overtly political hiring and decision making.

Opening the personnel records of political appointees would help check the potential for abuse. South Carolina has taken similar action to open the files of top-level employees.

When he campaigned in October, I asked McCrory about opening the records of public employees. He opposed opening performance reviews. But he said he was inclined to support legislation to open government personnel files if an issue involved illegality, corruption or misuse of a job when a person is terminated, suspended, transferred or demoted.

McCrory campaigned to clean up corruption in Raleigh. If he wants a more dedicated, professional and responsive set of employees, he could start by opening the personnel records of his political appointees.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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