When Asheville and Buncombe County officials and staffers huddled with Army representatives in 2002, they signed a secrecy agreement. But what does the state’s open-meetings law have to say about the meeting itself?”
As far as Xpress has been able to determine, those attending the meeting did not include a quorum of any local governmental body. That might suggest that the state’s open-meetings law did not apply to the gathering. But the assembly of elected and appointed officials may still have constituted a “public body” in its own right — the kind that is bound by the open-meetings law.
Legally, the question appears to be something of a gray area. “We don’t have any real good guidance from the courts on that kind of issue, but my own best guess is that you’d need a more formally created group than that” for the law to apply, says David Lawrence, an expert on the open-meetings law at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute of Government. “I doubt a court would find that to be a public body.”
But Will Polk, a lawyer who handles public-information questions for the state attorney general’s office, takes a different view. Although “the statute’s not completely clear,” he says, “I would err on the side of saying that this probably was an open meeting.
“Even if they were basically receiving information and not really actively deliberating, you could make the argument that, given that [the meeting] was made up of elected officials from the city, county and the sheriff, and given that they were discussing something that was a matter of concern for the community, it was indeed an open meeting that should have followed the procedures of the open-meetings statutes. So that you should at least announce it, so that you give citizens the opportunity to participate or at least be aware that this was taking place.”
North Carolina’s open-meetings law, notes Polk, does allow public bodies to go into closed session for certain specific reasons. But when officials take that step, they must first announce their intention to do so and indicate why, under state law, they’re allowed to shut out the public.
– Jon Elliston