Importance of openness

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 19, 2015

Most people never feel compelled to attend a meeting of the county commissioners, school board or town board — until a crisis arises. Your children are being redistricted to another school. Crime creeps into your neighborhood. A crucial government service is cut back or discontinued.

When that happens, you’ll want to know what your elected officials have to say about the issue, and you’ll want to hear their deliberations in public. That’s why North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law is so important, and why exceptions to it should be few. A limited number of matters may be discussed in private, but most should be aired in the open. The law is quite specific.

State law allows public bodies to call closed sessions to talk about buying property, for example — but it does not permit them to keep secret the piece of property that is the subject of negotiations. The state attorney general’s office puts it this way: “The body may consider and discuss the public body’s positions on the price or other material terms of contracts to acquire real property (but generally must disclose prior to the closed session the location of the property and identities of the parties to the proposed transaction)…” That goes for purchase, option, exchange or lease.

Minutes of the closed sessions must be complete and, in many instances, later made available for inspection. That may seem trivial to some officials; perhaps hardly any citizens attend board meetings and no one has ever asked to see the minutes. But the law is the law, and it’s written that way for a reason — to keep government as open and accountable as possible. Closed sessions are not opportunities to discuss all the board’s business; they are for specific issues and often for just a limited amount of time. That makes  minutes especially important.

Not every board follows this law, and the Post’s survey of local governments found that some misunderstood it. A China Grove clerk said the town does not keep minutes of closed sessions; after the Post reported that response, the town manager said the board in fact does keep minutes of those sessions. The Faith Town Board does not keep minutes of closed sessions; board members should be sure to change that practice immediately. Failure to do so is a clear violation of the law, something these public servants clearly do not intend.

We should all be grateful that anyone wants to serve in public office. It can be a demanding and humbling job. But that does not relieve officials of the responsibility to be accountable and open in their dealings.