Feb 282011
 
 February 28, 2011  Posted by  Laws

An editorial from the Gaston Gazette in North Carolina advocates limiting the privacy of personnel files of government employees:

The fiasco created with the hiring of a new county health department director underlines the need for change in North Carolina law about the personnel files of government workers.

The change can’t come too soon for Gaston County.

As the law now stands, the public – people who are the government and the employers of every government worker – have access to little more than name, rank and serial number of people who hold government jobs.

[…]

When the health board voted to hire Chris Dobbins for the director’s position Monday night, board member Peggy Well hinted that Dobbins has been involved in personnel problems during his previous employment at the health department. She would not elaborate, citing personnel privacy law.

As the employer of county government workers, the people of Gaston County have the right to know whether there were problems and if so, what the problems entailed and how they were handled.

[…]

The best solution can come from Raleigh. The General Assembly’s approval of a bill to give the public access to personnel files of government workers would remedy the problem once and for all.

Lawmakers who support the public’s right to know have tried to open personnel files for a long time, going back to Attorney General Roy Cooper when he served in the N.C. Senate. More recently, Sen. Phil Berger, now the Senate’s president pro tempore, gave it a shot, only to be shot down – as usual — by heavy lobbying from government employee unions.

The GOP leadership has pledged to take up the fight for government transparency during this year’s session with a bill that would give the public access to personnel information about government employees.

There’s no better example of why a change in the law is needed than circumstances around the hiring of a new Gaston County health department director.

Read more in the Gaston Gazette.  The editorial even manages to throw in the “if you have nothing to hide” argument to question why a government employee has not cleared the air about a statement made about him.

Is the Gaston Gazette’s editorial board bucking  a trend to more privacy of personnel files or is employee privacy diminishing?  Boris Segalis recently reviewed what he sees as gains in employee privacy in the U.S. In addition to the cases he mentioned, a ruling in Michigan denied public access to e-mails that public school employees sent on the district’s computer system. But there have been other cases where employee privacy has not prevailed, such as a NYC case  involving teacher rankings and other recent stories in the news have looked at what strikes me as a diminished expectation of privacy in the job application process.  So in the balancing act between employee privacy and public’s right to know, it’s not clear to me which way the wind is really blowing these days.

And even if you fervently believe in government transparency, how much of a government employee’s personnel file should be accessible to the public?  If an employee had a negative review by a former employer that is in his file, do we  have a right to know that? Does the public have a right to see an applicant’s entire file so that we can determine whether our government has hired someone suitable for the job?  If not, where’s the line?

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