Members of the Downtown Economic Development Corporation took a serious misstep Wednesday when they went into closed session to talk about how to spend the public's money.
In doing so, they run the risk of alienating the very people - the residents and companies of the town - for whom they are working. Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy told The (Durham) Herald-Sun that the board was expected to function like a public body, which must meet very specific criteria outlined by state law to move into closed session.
The board erected the wall of privacy to discuss a promotional campaign for downtown businesses and how to handle actions taken in the past by the town's Downtown Commission.
It was the wrong move.
Everyone, from the taxpayers who contribute the corporation's funds to the businesses that are impacted by the group's actions, should have been able to observe the board's decision-making process.
There seems to be some confusion regarding whether or not the corporation exists as a public body. But going by the letter of the law, there is no room for such confusion.
The DEDC is obviously a public body. It is funded with taxpayers' money and a mixture of town and UNC contributions. Its members have been appointed by the town, the University or each other.
The corporation advises town officials regarding downtown economic development. In working toward its goal of downtown economic revitalization, the group makes decisions and recommendations that affect town residents, the University and local businesses.
On Wednesday, the DEDC certainly discussed matters that were of public interest. Just like the Town Council, the DEDC must answer to taxpayers and businesses and be open to their inspection - there's no question about it.
There are several reasons why a public body legitimately could conduct its business in private, and one of those reasons has to do with business-related discussion.
N.C. Open Meetings Law states that a public body may go into closed session "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.
"The action approving the signing of an economic development contract or commitment, or the action authorizing the payment of economic development expenditures, shall be taken in an open session."
Before holding a closed meeting, a public body must make and adopt a motion that cites the purpose for the closure. There are serious questions about whether the board came close to having a legitimate reason to close proceedings and whether it properly cited its reasoning.
The DEDC is the new kid on the block. Town officials decided on its structure early in the year, and the body itself is only several months old. Now - when many local residents likely don't know much about the corporation and its purpose - is not the time for the DEDC's board to compromise any amount of trust that it initially has built with the town.
Instead of seeking to carry out business in private, board members should be looking for every opportunity to make their work and methods known to town residents and businesses alike.
In the future, the DEDC's board should go into closed session only when it must, and never simply because it can. In this case, it can be argued that the body didn't even have the legal authority to do so. It's time for the board's members to identify the corporation as a public body, to become acquainted with the state's Open Meetings Law and to reconsider and reverse the precedent they set Wednesday.
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