Our Opinion: Personnel records should be open to taxpayer scrutiny

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If you want accountability, change the law.

That’s the takeaway from a North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling handed down last week that upholds a superior court judge’s decision to keep nearly 45 pages of minutes from a school board’s closed session under wraps.

A unanimous three-judge panel found that the Alamance County school board was permitted to withhold the information under state public records and open meetings laws, which shield most personnel records from public disclosure.

The Times-News of Burlington had sued to obtain a summary of minutes from the closed session, which led to the May 30, 2014 resignation of former Superintendent Lilli Cox. She left with a golden parachute — a $200,000 severance package plus $22,000 for unused vacation time.

Superior Court Judge Michael O’Foghludha reviewed the closed-session minutes and sided largely with the school board, ordering just one paragraph to be publicly disclosed. On appeal, the newspaper argued that state law requires public bodies to not only keep minutes of closed sessions, but to provide the public with a “general account” of the meeting with sufficient detail that members of the public could “reasonably understand what transpired.”

The Times-News’ argument makes sense, but a 2001 Court of Appeals opinion held that meeting minutes and a “general account” are essentially the same thing. Relying on that precedent, the appellate panel upheld O’Foghludha’s ruling.

John Bussian, the newspaper’s attorney, said the decision highlights severe shortcomings in North Carolina’s public records and open meetings laws.

“The court’s job is to read the public records law broadly to promote access,” Bussian told the Times-News, “and this decision, if correct, shows why North Carolina’s public records access law keeps the public from knowing reasons for important government personnel decisions, unlike the law in more than 35 other states.”

Sunshine Week, a nationwide campaign to promote open government, began Sunday and continues through Saturday. “Sunshine” is shorthand for laws and policies that allow the public to keep tabs on their government agencies by reviewing records and attending meetings.

Despite the mild winter we’ve seen this year, North Carolina is in desperate need of more sunlight.

Public employees work for the city, county, state and federal taxpayers who underwrite their salaries, and those citizens should have the right to review records that assess their job performance. When they are given six-figure payouts to hit the road, residents deserve a full accounting of the reasons behind their departure.

Most states do a better job of holding government workers accountable to the public they serve. North Carolina is an outlier. That should embarrass us, and it ought to shame our lawmakers into action.

The General Assembly may be busy squabbling over bathroom bills, but we think it can find time to make some much-needed upgrades to the state’s sunshine laws. This week is as good a time as any to get started.