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When an everyday citizen becomes an elected official, there’s often a tough road ahead. In addition to learning the ins and outs of basic government duties, officials have to educate themselves about the community they’re in, the topics they’re discussing and general government procedures.
An important part of an elected position is understanding open meetings and open records law. Federal and state laws dictate how certain information is discussed, decided upon and shared with the public.
According to the North Carolina Open Government Coalition (NCOGC), as defined by N.C. General Statute 143-318.11, the following items may be discussed in a closed, non-public government session, “consultations with an attorney, claims or litigation, business location or expansion, real property acquisition, employment contracts, certain personnel matters and investigations.”
We believe a recent closed session of the Calabash Town Commissioners violated this law.
On Feb. 19, the commissioners had a closed session in which personnel policy and “establishing a code of ethics” were discussed. After learning this, a Beacon reporter challenged the board on these issues, arguing they were not items that could be legally discussed in closed session.
Calabash Mayor Anthony Clemmons said the board had a consensus in that meeting that he and two commissioners would meet with town employees to talk about making their team better. In our opinion that is a direct violation of the law. While the board was legally entitled to discuss a specific personnel matter, in which a decision was made to fire town administrator Donna Prince, the other items discussed cross the line.
There is no excuse for a public body to blatantly break the law.
Such matters can be pursued in court. According to NCOGC, a court can issue a finding a violation has taken place or if “someone seeks an injunction against violations, a court may order the public body not to violate the law in the future.” It can also be requested the “ invalidate an action taken (or deliberated) based upon a violation of the open meetings law.”
The open meetings law clearly specifies that before entering into a closed session, a board must publicly make known the reason for going into closed session. It must then vote on going into closed session.
Once that decision has been made, if the board says it’s going to discuss confidential information it is required to specifically cite the law that makes that matter confidential.
NCOGC also goes on to explain that if a board wishes to talk about pending litigation, a motion must identify the parties involved in the litigation.
Once in closed session, the board is only allowed to discuss the matters specified for the closed session. It cannot talk about other issues. If additional discussion topics are needed, the board is required by law to leave the closed session, return to an open meeting, disclose the new issues, cite the law that makes them subject to a closed meeting and then vote to return to closed session.
Items discussed on a whim in closed sessions are illegal. Items unannounced and not covered by the law, and discussed anyway are considered to be in violation of the open meetings law.
While a board can vote in a closed session, it must disclose the vote in closed session minutes. The public is entitled to see those minutes as soon as the reason for a closed session no longer exists. According to NCOGC, “the law requires minutes be kept that are full and accurate and that they provide a general account to let a person who wasn’t there have a reasonable understanding of what transpired.”
Elected officials have a responsibility to know the law that governs their meetings. Mayors and other leaders should be well versed and when subject matters are in question, they should refer to their legal counsel before proceeding.
The public, especially the media, needs to continue to be watchdogs to ensure these matters are dealt with appropriately. Talking about public business in private will not be tolerated.