The message, which arrived via Facebook, said two longtime Clayton police officers were about to resign or be fired. If memory serves, the message arrived on a Sunday, and by the end of that work week, two veteran officers had, indeed, quit the force.
But outside of Town Hall, no one knows for certain why the two officers quit. The police chief and town manager said they could not comment on the resignations, citing state personnel laws that protect the privacy of public employees.
We can imagine circumstances where protecting employee privacy is perfectly fine, even preferable. We don’t need to know, for example, that an employee is retiring because of poor physical or mental health. And truth be told, we don’t need to know that a department manager had no other choice but to fire an employee whose performance suffered because he and his wife recently split.
But in crafting the state’s personnel-privacy laws, we can’t imagine that N.C. lawmakers meant to protect public employees who, for example, break the law. We’re not suggesting the departed Clayton police officers did that; we do not know. But what if a town employee in Johnston County was about to resign or be fired for stealing taxpayer money? Should that employee really merit the protection of North Carolina’s personnel-privacy laws? Shouldn’t taxpayers have the right to know that they were being ripped off?
If you’re thinking a town would certainly press criminal charges or pursue civil remedies against employees who rewarded themselves financially without authorization, you obviously don’t live in Smithfield, where a pay scandal claimed jobs but yielded no criminal charges and not the first dime of restitution.
We would not expect any town manager or department head to risk a lawsuit by ignoring state law and stating explicitly why an employee retired or was fired. But we would encourage state lawmakers to revisit personnel laws that prohibit the disclosure of employee misbehavior. Taxpayers have every right to know when their trust has been betrayed.