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A look at North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law

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By Caroline Curran, Reporter

You, as a member of the public, have a right to attend an open meeting.

It’s the law.

As defined in North Carolina General Statute 143-318.10, official meetings of public bodies are open to members of the public.

A public body is defined by N.C.G.S. 143-318.10 as “any elected or appointed body, committee, commission, board or other group that is composed of two or more members who are authorized to exercise legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative or advisory functions.”

Committees of public bodies also are defined as public bodies. For all public bodies, boards and subcommittees, minutes must be taken at every meeting, which are public record. Minutes do not need to be approved by the board to be public record.

Groups not defined as public bodies, such as nonprofit organizations, are not subject to the N.C. Open Meetings Law.

An official meeting is defined in N.C.G.S. 143-318.10(d) as “a meeting, assembly or gathering together at any time or place or the simultaneous communication by conference telephone or other electronic means of a majority of the members of a public body for the purpose of conducting hearings, participating in deliberations or voting upon or otherwise transacting the public business within the jurisdiction, real or apparent, of the public body.”

Accurate minutes must be kept at public meetings, and the minutes are public records. Any recordings, either audio or video, of the meetings, are also public records.

The law also requires the public is notified of any official meeting.

Closed sessions

While the law allows for nine exemptions of the open meetings law for a board to retreat into closed session, the law also requires board members to disclose the nature of their retreat to closed session.

There are nine exemptions to the North Carolina Open Meetings Law—all other business must be conducted in the open. And when board members retreat to closed session, they must clearly identify the statutory exemption to the open meetings law that allows them to meet in closed session.

Board members are required only to discuss the matter for which they are legally allowed to enter into closed session.

Any action taken must be taken in open session—by law, there is no voting permitted in closed session.

All other business must be done in the open.

The open meetings law also says that even when a board calls a closed session, board members must still notify the public.

Minutes of the closed session must be taken just as the law requires in an open session. But closed session minutes “may be withheld from public inspection so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session,” according to N.C.G.S. 143-318.10 (e).

Once the reason for the closed session is resolved, meeting minutes become public.

Exemptions

N.C. General Statute 143-318.18 defines the following public bodies as exempt, in whole or in part, from the open meetings law: the Judicial Standards Commission, the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, the Legislative Ethics Committee, conference committees of the General Assembly, legislative caucuses, law enforcement agencies, occupational licensing agencies while they are creating, administering or grading exams, certain boards of trustees of endowments, the Board of Awards, and the court system, including juries.

The Open Meetings Law, N.C. General Statute 143-318.11, permits government boards to go into closed session in the following nine circumstances:

  1. To prevent the disclosure of privileged or confidential information pursuant to the law of North Carolina or the United States, or not considered a public record within the meaning of Chapter 132 of the N.C. General Statutes.
  2. To prevent the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize, or similar award.
  3. To consult an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney-client privilege between the attorney and the public body, which privilege is here acknowledged.
  4. To discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area served by the public body, including agreement on a tentative list of economic development incentives that may be offered by the public body in negotiations.
  5. To establish, or to instruct the public body’s staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract.
  6. To consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee.
  7. To plan, conduct or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct.
  8. To formulate plans by a local board of education relating to emergency response to incidents of school violence.
  9. To discuss an action regarding plans to protect public safety as it relates to existing or potential terrorist activity and to receive briefings by staff members, legal counsel, or law enforcement or emergency service officials concerning actions taken or to be taken to respond to such activity.