Editor’s note: Port City Daily is participating in this year’s Sunshine Week (March 10-16) with in-depth stories, government record audits and tips of the trade for making public records requests. Look for stories and information throughout the week.
The state’s Open Meetings Law requires boards that “exist solely to conduct the people’s business,” do so openly—including hearings, deliberations and actions.
Specifically, North Carolina General Statute 143-318.10(b) defines a public body as “any elected or appointed body, committee, commission, board or other group that is composed of two or more members who are authorized to exercise legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative or advisory functions.”
If the board meets these criteria, any meeting must be open to the public, and proper notice must be given. Committees of public bodies also are defined as public bodies.
But several groups are not defined as a public body, and don’t have to follow the open meetings law.
Some exemptions include nonprofit organizations, the Judicial Standards Commission, the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, the Legislative Ethics Committee, conference committees of the General Assembly, legislative caucuses, occupational licensing agencies while they are creating, administering or grading exams, certain boards of trustees of endowments, the Board of Awards, and the court system, including juries.
The law (N.C. G.S. 143-318.14) also allows for anyone–not just the press–to broadcast and record public meetings.
“Any radio or television station is entitled to broadcast all or any part of a meeting required to be open. Any person may photograph, film, tape‑record, or otherwise reproduce any part of a meeting required to be open,” the law states.
While meetings of public boards must be advertised and open to the public, there are nine circumstances that allow a board to retreat into closed session, previously referred to as “executive session.”
As outlined in North Carolina General Statute 143-318.11(a)1-9, the proper and specific provision to enter closed session must be cited to legally enter into closed session. Any action must be taken in open session.
The Open Meetings Law permits a closed session in the following nine circumstances:
- To prevent the disclosure of privileged or confidential information pursuant to the law of North Carolina or the United States, or not considered a public record within the meaning of Chapter 132 of the N.C. General Statutes.
- To prevent the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize, or similar award.
- To consult an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney-client privilege between the attorney and the public body, which privilege is here acknowledged.
- 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.
- To establish, or to instruct the public body’s staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract.
- To consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee.
- To plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct.
- To formulate plans by a local board of education relating to emergency response to incidents of school violence.
- To discuss an action regarding plans to protect public safety as it relates to existing or potential terrorist activity and to receive briefings by staff members, legal counsel, or law enforcement or emergency service officials concerning actions taken or to be taken to respond to such activity.
All other business must be done in the open. The law also says that even when a board calls a closed session, they must still notify the public.
Minutes of the closed session must be taken just as the law requires in an open session. But closed session minutes “may be withheld from public inspection so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session,” (G.S. 143-318.10 (e).)
Caroline Curran is the managing editor of Port City Daily and longtime participant in Sunshine Week. Reach her at (910) 772-6336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @cgcurran.