The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday December 9th

For the Law's, Public's Sake, Open Meetings

I'll give a big thumbs up to the town-gown relations committee Chapel Hill Mayor Rosemary Waldorf and Chancellor James Moeser announced Oct. 19, but I'll use another finger to express my feelings about the committee's decision to close its meetings.

Let's forget all the arguments about the public's right to know for a minute - although they are valid arguments. The decision is quite possibly illegal.

North Carolina has an Open Meetings Law. That means, coincidentally, that governmental meetings must be open. That means the town-gown relations decision to close its meetings is illegal unless members can prove it meets one of the law's conditions for closing meetings.

Council and committee member Kevin Foy defended the legality of the decision and told The Daily Tar Heel, "This is not a committee that has any authority to make any binding decision on the town."

As a lawyer, Foy should know that, under North Carolina's Open Meetings Law, this argument won't cut it.

Under that law, it is illegal for any public body - and the town council is certainly a public body - or a committee of a public body to close its meetings. Even if the committee has only an advisory function, it is still a public body under N.C. law.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Ruth Walden, a media law professor in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, agrees with me. She told the DTH she thinks the meetings would need to be open legally.

It's not as though a public body can't close a meeting under any circumstances. But the town-gown relations committee doesn't seem to meet any of the conditions for closing a meeting.

The committee is not addressing specific personnel or employee issues or deciding whether to honor someone. The committee meetings won't involve attorney-client privilege, or if they do, only those portions of the meetings should be closed. It's not dealing with employment contracts, confidential or privileged information or criminal misconduct.

The legal logic the committee could use is that it will be dealing with business or industry expansion and real estate acquisitions, both of which are legal justifications for closing a meeting in North Carolina.

The committee will probably address growth, which could be construed to mean business and industry expansion. And the University might try to acquire land residents own as part of the Master Plan. Discussing that in a meeting would be discussing real estate acquisitions. But that argument is shaky, and the entire business of the committee will most likely not be about business expansion.

But with the wide variety of issues affecting town-gown relations, I doubt that's all the committee will discuss. When a meeting is closed, the members can discuss only issues related to the issue they used to close the meeting.

Setting aside the legal issues, if the committee's purpose is to improve the relationship between the town and the University, closing the meetings seems self-defeating. Communication between town and University officials might improve, but most members of both communities will be left in the dark.

Committee member Jonathan Howes, special assistant to the chancellor, told the DTH, "I think it was the expectation of the chancellor and the mayor that the subject matter would be sufficiently sensitive that the matters would be best discussed in private."

The best way to discuss sensitive issues is openly. I want to know what's so sensitive about the subjects of these meetings that Chapel Hill residents and the University community can't be trusted to be in on them.

Council member Joyce Brown is not a member of the committee, but she supports its formation. But Brown told the DTH she opposes the fact that the committee is being proposed as a closed committee.

And I hope committee members start to agree with her. They might not lose a lawsuit, but they could lose public confidence.

Columnist Erin Mendell can be reached at mendell@email.unc.edu.


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