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UNC System Board of Governors action raises meetings law questions

The UNC System Board of Governors voted Friday to close three academic centers on three different campuses. Prior to the vote, the board moved into a smaller room after several audience outbursts. They allowed the press to attend, but did not allow the general public into the relocated meeting. 

The UNC System Board of Governors held a meeting Friday on the campus of UNC Charlotte, their first such meeting in Charlotte since the 1970s. The agenda included a decision on whether or not to close academic centers at the UNC School of Law, North Carolina Central and East Carolina, respectively. The pending vote on the academic centers drew a number of protestors to the meeting, who at times disrupted it with public statements of support. 

After several people were escorted from the meeting room, the Board of Governors took a recess and reconvened in a smaller meeting room. The general public was not permitted to attend, although a video and audio feed was set up in a nearby room. Members of the press were allowed into the smaller room. The board then proceeded with the controversial vote to close the centers as well as decisions about tuition increases. 

N.C. Press Association Attorney Amanda Martin told The Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer newspapers that the actions of the board violated the law since there was clearly an effort to exclude the public. Ross, the system president, told the papers that the video and audio feeds complied with the meetings law and the move was made so the meeting could move forward. 

The Open Meetings Law states that meetings "shall be open to the public, and any person is entitled to attend." It does not address excluding the public when the audience is disruptive. The Court of Appeals addressed the question of what it means for "any person ... to attend" a public meeting in Garlock v. Wake County Board of Education. In that case the Wake County Board of Education's regular meeting room could not accomodate large crowds that were wanting to attend meetings, so the board developed a lottery system for which it provided short notice. The board also used smaller meeting room for a committee of the whole meeting, as opposed to its larger meeting room, and excluded the public. People excluded could view the meetings in an adjacent room on video and audio feeds. 

The Court of Appeals first found that "the legislature’s purpose for N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.10 is to ensure that public bodies receive public input regarding the substance of the public body’s actions, that the public has the opportunity to have knowledge and understanding of the public body’s deliberations and actions, and that public bodies to act in good faith in making provision for the public’s knowledge and participation in its meetings." The court then said that the appropriate standard is to examine whether or not the public body took "reasonable measures to provide for public access to its meetings." 

In dealing with the committee of the whole meeting, from which the public was excluded, the court stated that "media coverage alone does not render a meeting open; a reasonable opportunity for access by members of the public must be made. The complete exclusion of members of the public from the COW meeting for a significant portion of the meeting is the most obvious violation of the Open Meetings Law in this case." 

The Board of Governors meeting Friday is most similar to the Wake County Board of Education's committee of the whole meetings in which the public was excluded, the press was included and video feeds were made available. The Court of Appeals found that to be a violation of the meetings law in Garlock, given in part that a larger meeting room was available next door.

It seems unlikely that the Board of Governors concerns about disruptions would be sufficient to distinguish this situation from Garlock. The Board of Governors had a room available sufficient to handle the public who wanted to attend, and had other means available to it, as evidenced by UNCC police escorting protestors out of the room, to control outbursts. 

This is the second Open Meetings Law question to arise in a Board of Governors meeting in as many months. Last month the board met in executive session to discuss the performance of President Tom Ross, and then announced that his contract would only be renewed for this year. After the meeting, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on emails that it had obtained through records requests. The emails of board member emeritus Hannah Gage revealed that the board passed a resolution in closed session "not to comment" on Ross' departure. No such resolution was disclosed or affirmed, according to the minutes from that meeting.  

Read joint coverage of Friday's meeting from The Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer here.

To learn more about government transparency in North Carolina, visit the full website for The Sunshine Center at www.ncopengov.org

Jonathan Jones,
2/27/2015 4:50 PM