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Lawmakers fight public records pushback
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Lawmakers fight public records pushback
State employee groups lobbying against bills to make records public, punish violators




Lawmakers who want to strengthen open meetings and records laws and punish officials who violate them face formidable opposition from state employees groups.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina and N.C. League of Municipalities are fighting bills to make government workers’ performance evaluations public and subject public records law violators to criminal penalties, state Sen. Thom Goolsby told journalists last week.

"You would think that we are putting some incredible amount of scrutiny on all these state employees, totally unheard of, and invading their privacy and following them to the bathroom,” Goolsby said. "I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s our money, it’s our building, they work for us, it’s our time. We should know what they’re doing.”

Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican, and state Rep. Jeff Collins, a Republican from Nash County, spoke candidly about the obstacles open government bills face during the North Carolina Press Association’s legislative brunch March 21 at the University of North Carolina’s George Hill Watts Alumni Center in Chapel Hill.

"People do dastardly things in the darkness,” Goolsby said. "Not in the sunshine. They just don’t. They know they’re going to get caught. That’s the message we’ve got to get out there.”

Goolsby and Collins spoke to press association members at an annual meeting that precedes a journalism awards banquet. The trade group represents more than 100 daily and weekly North Carolina newspapers and lobbies for increased access to government documents and meetings.

John Bussian, the press association’s legislative and First Amendment counsel, described the two Republican lawmakers as "the promoters and enforcers of open government law.”

Goolsby is a primary sponsor of three public records bills: Senate Bill 125, which would make violations of open government laws a Class 3 misdemeanor; Senate Bill 331, which would place a state constitutional amendment for open meetings and public records on the 2014 general election ballot; and Senate Bill 332, which would make state and local personnel records — including performance reviews — open to public inspection.

Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, is a co-sponsor of SB 125. He and Goolsby are co-chairmen of the Judiciary I committee, where all three bills have been referred.

Collins plans to introduce a House version of SB 332, known as the Government Transparency Act. He refuted criticism from public employee groups who say it’s unfair to release worker evaluations that might make false and damaging claims.

"The more openness something has, the more sunlight is shining on it, I think the more serious the people are who are giving input to the system as well,” Collins said. "I think you’re going to be very, very careful before you put down anything that you can’t substantiate to the N-th degree.”

Collins grew up in Rocky Mount and graduated from the University of North Carolina with a journalism degree in 1978. He took a reporter internship at the Sun Journal in New Bern before becoming a high school math teacher. Collins now works as a financial adviser.

"I do believe in open government,” Collins said. "I’m in a profession where if I do anything wrong, the insurance commissioner puts out a publication I could be in, the state securities director can write me up on their web page.”

He added: "If I do anything at all, everybody could put it out there for public consumption. It’s hard for me to understand the angst about what we’re trying to do.”

League of Municipalities lobbyists and lawmakers attacked the bill during the Judiciary I committee’s March 12 meeting. The panel didn’t take a vote, and it isn’t clear whether the bill will advance or die in committee.

Goolsby said North Carolina residents deserve to see performance reviews of workers whose salaries they pay.

"That, to me, just makes sense,” he said. "I cannot understand where we’re getting the pushback from.”

A criminal defense and personal injury attorney, Goolsby said his interest in strengthening the state’s open government laws increased when the alcoholic beverage control board in New Hanover County held an illegal closed meeting.

Watchdogs sued the board for violating the state open meetings law and asked for minutes of the meeting, which board members didn’t produce.

"They were sued over it and the court said what? Don’t do that again, and you can’t produce a record you don’t have,” Goolsby said. "That’s the best you can do in North Carolina.”

SB 125 would turn the tables by making flagrant violations of the open meetings and public records laws subject to criminal penalties. Under current law, residents denied copies of records or access to meetings can sue for compliance. Legal fees aren’t automatically awarded when plaintiffs win.

"With that kind of sort of homegrown government darkness, that led me to really want to change things and make things more like the world I come from, the legal world, where you have to produce these kinds of documents,” Goolsby said.

corey@wilsontimes.com | 265-7821
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said...

Goolsby works for us also.
He needs to remember that.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 7:58 AM
Frank said...

I'm all for more access to state records up to the point of personnel records.
Much of what goes into performance reviews is based on politics -- personal and professional. Republicans attack Democrats, and Democrats attack Republicans for little more than party registration. It happens each and every day in State government.
It's even worse in Personnel offices. When I worked in state govt, the people in our personnel were always filings grievances against each other as means of protecting THEMSELVES from getting fired or "RIF'ed". There were grievances and counter-grievances, and everyone hated everyone, and I doubt their personnel files mentioned anything about how their disagreements were tied solely to their political registrations. I knew people on the other side were out to get me for my political ties, and it all made me sick. I am so glad to be out of all that craziness.
State employees do important jobs, often for much less that they could be making in private industry. Their privacy should be respected.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 7:16 AM
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