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As a government reporter, I sit through a lot of meetings. I mean, a lot of meetings. So many so that sometimes I would rather bang my head against the wall than sit through another meeting, but alas, I continue.
Hyperbole aside, some meetings are more painful than others—not physically painful, but emotionally painful—frustrating, if you will.
I have made a steadfast commitment to being a proponent of freedom of information. I consider myself a student of the North Carolina Open Meetings and Public Records laws.
I say student because I don’t know everything.
But I know a lot, and what I don’t know, I ask (an attorney). I’m also a bit of a nerd concerning this information, and I have no shame in admitting it.
If there’s a new attorney general opinion or case law, I’m the first not only to read it, but to share with colleagues.
For nearly five years I have been reading, studying and practicing what I preach when it comes to open meetings and public records.
I know how a meeting should be conducted. I know how a board must, by law, retreat into closed session. And I know how they shouldn’t.
It’s when I see a board, in front of my very eyes, illegally enter into closed session, get corrected by yours truly, only to stare blankly and continue to break the law that I get that urge to bang my head against the wall I referred to earlier.
But there’s one little, tiny pet peeve of mine that trumps all others—when people swear allegiance to Robert’s Rules of Order but willfully ignore the Open Meetings Law.
The aforementioned lawbreaker in this particular case I am referring to is commissioner Charles Warren in his role as DSS chairman. At an August DSS board meeting, he and the $275-an-hour-attorney illegally entered into closed session even after being told by yours truly they were breaking the law.
Imagine that: One’s a county commissioner, the other’s an attorney, and neither know the law, at least as it pertains to legally entering into closed session.
So, fast-forward a few months later and board member Elise Peterson wants to discuss something that’s not on the agenda. She asks, but is denied by Warren who claims it’s improper.
Peterson asks why it’s improper. After all, she says it’s imperative they discuss the matter.
She is denied again, only to be told by Warren that violates the meeting’s rules, which is being conducted per Robert’s Rules of Order.
Excuse me? Robert’s Rules of Order? What about North Carolina Open Meetings Law?
Last time I checked, law trumps rules, because it’s, well, the law.
Why does it seem my pleas continue to fall on deaf ears?
OK, so we have this board led by an elected county commissioner openly breaking the Open Meetings Law, but refusing to alter Robert’s Rules for the betterment of the community. Hmm, that’s a little ironic.
Frustrated, I vented to my co-workers recently, “Who the heck is Robert anyway?”
Education reporter Kathryn Jacewicz was quick on the draw and shared biographical information on ole Robert, who’s first name isn’t even Robert.
It turns out Henry Martyn Robert penned the rules in 1876. Yes, folks, you have elected officials ignoring North Carolina’s law outlining how a meeting by a public board should be conducted instead to take the advice of someone from the 19th century.
I understand following these “rules” to the extent that you want a meeting to run smoothly, but the law, outlined in North Carolina General Statutes 143-318.9 through 143-318.18, states what can and cannot happen in a meeting by law.
If anyone, elected official or member of the public, wants more information on the open meetings law (or public records law), call me, I’d be happy to go over it with you.
Open meetings laws and public records laws aren’t sexy. They aren’t headline-makers and attention-grabbers.
But they are the cornerstones of our free and open government, and I, for one, am willing to make sure they’re abided by.
Plus, it would sure be a shame for an attorney with a six-figure law degree to get schooled by an English major from N.C. State on the law, wouldn’t it?