- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 5, 2021

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Legislation requiring that more details about the personnel history of North Carolina state and local government employees be accessible to the media and the public was retooled on Wednesday by a Senate committee to address privacy concerns and vindictive bosses.

The bill was voted out by the Senate judiciary panel a week after a previous version was approved by the same committee. Bill sponsor Sen. Norm Sanderson, a Pamlico County Republican, said it made sense to make changes now, rather than on the Senate floor, that respond to worries by colleagues and a state workers’ group.

State law already makes basic information about a government employee public, including current salary and a “general description of the reasons for each promotion.” The bill, backed by the North Carolina Press Association, also would require a similar general description for the reasons for demotions, dismissals, transfers or suspensions.

Sanderson’s amendment clarifies that the description couldn’t include the disclosure of health information otherwise confidential under federal privacy laws. And the description couldn’t be made public until 30 days after all appeals the worker has available are exhausted. That is designed to prevent unsubstantiated allegations by a supervisor or a co-worker from being made public, staining needlessly an employee’s reputation. State law already mandates that an agency’s final written explanation about why someone has been fired must be provided when requested.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina still opposes the measure, Executive Director Ardis Watkins told the committee, particularly as it relates to handling false allegations.

“The onus is still on the employee in this situation to prove that a supervisor said something that was factually incorrect,” Watkins said. “That is an incredible burden,” she added pointing to the financial and emotional resources necessary to go through the appeals process to clear one’s name. Otherwise, she said, these unfounded allegations likely will wind up on the internet through a public records request.

Press Association attorney John Bussian said the measure will bring North Carolina personnel records laws closer to the majority of other states and the amount of information disclosed about how taxpayer-funded workers are performing. The bill also would apply to the University of North Carolina system, community colleges, sheriff’s deputies and police officers and regional mental health agencies.

It’s been the State Employees Association position for 20 years “that the sky’s going to fall,” if more information is made public, Bussian said. “And we keep going back to why this isn’t a dramatic sea change when you look at what all the other states in the country are doing.”

While some senators still raised concerns about employee privacy, the bill passed on a voice vote. It needs to advance through one more Senate committee before reaching the chamber floor.

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