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The Daily Tar Heel

Open Meetings Shouldn't Need Media Nudge

Now that the University and Chapel Hill town-gown relations committee has decided to open its meetings, residents and students will get the openness they deserve.

I'm reluctant to praise the committee members just yet, though.

Of course, no matter what the members' motivation for opening them was, the fact that they will be open is a positive result.

But it's alarming that it took so much media pressure for members to decide the committee's meetings should be open. And now that they've decided they should, their decision seems to be a reluctant one.

Wouldn't elected officials and officials hired to serve the needs of the University community want to be open with the public?

The committee, formed by Mayor Rosemary Waldorf and Chancellor James Moeser, was established to discuss issues that affect the town and the University. Obviously any issue that would fall into that category would affect a lot of people.

Officials intended to close the meeting so they could discuss sensitive issues without the public getting its collective panties in a bunch.

But the issues that are prone to induce panty-bunching are the ones that need to be discussed openly and not relegated behind closed government doors.

Waldorf told The Daily Tar Heel that it was hard to say what effect opening the meetings would have on the committee because Chapel Hill has never had a committee like the town-gown relations committee.

That doesn't mean the logical conclusion is to close the meetings, though. I imagine the thought process that went into that decision was something like this: "Hmm . we're trying something new. Let's not let anyone see us try in case it turns into a major screw-up."

Yes, opening the meetings is risky in that any mistakes will be public record, but it's a risk public bodies are obligated by law (in this state, at least) and the public's faith to take.

It's disturbing that the people who are entrusted to serve a community would want to hold private meetings where the people they serve cannot be part of the process.

What's equally disturbing, though, is that town-gown relations committee members decided to open the meetings not under pressure from outraged residents and students, but from the media.

Waldorf said criticism from several media outlets influenced the decision. She also said there was little criticism from the general public.

While in an ideal situation, public officials would do what's right without prompting from anyone, the real world is not an ideal situation, and the public should not rely on the media to fight all of it's battles.

The media certainly serves a watch dog function, but when people have us fight all their battles, they also let us choose all their battles.

North Carolina's Open Meetings Law is not in place to protect the interests of media outlets. It's in place to protect the interests of the people whom government bodies' decisions affect.

Members of the media are often the only people who take advantage directly of the Open Meetings Law by actually going to the meetings.

But everyone who picks up a newspaper to read about a government meeting benefits as well.

If no one except the media cares about opening meetings, then the Open Meetings Law is meaningless.

And in that case, any government body that wants to close its meetings should be able to.

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Access is meaningless unless people use it. Maybe if that access is taken away, people will realize how important it was in the first place.

Now that the public has access to the town-gown relations committee's meetings, I'd like to see people taking advantage of it.

While the meetings are not meant to be public hearings, I hope people who have a stake in what goes on at them - and that's almost everyone - shows up and asks some questions.

Columnist Erin Mendell can be reached at

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