Check out the full NC Local newsletter from March 31, including Carolina Public Press joining a national project on trust in news, McClatchy layoffs, and a long list of links to free help and funding opportunities. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox weekly.
By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor
When the Asheville City Council decided it would close the doors today for the first day of a two-day gathering, in a session to “strengthen alignment, teamwork and trust,” it didn’t reckon on another kind of alignment and teamwork — and a legal covenant of trust.
Local media reported on the plan to violate the state’s open meetings law, including Mountain Xpress Managing Editor Virginia Daffron, who wrote that “we take our watchdog role seriously” and that previous team-building exercises had illuminated “personal histories and philosophies that Council members and senior city staffers brought to their work.” Kate Martin of Carolina Public Press, Matt Bush of Blue Ridge Public Radio and Joel Burgess of the Asheville Citizen Times also reported on the issue.
Amanda Martin, general counsel to the NC Press Association, and Frayda Bluestein, professor in the UNC School of Government, advised that the gathering — at a public facility, with two facilitators paid with public money — was a meeting, subject to the law.
The Citizen Times, Blue Ridge Public Radio, Carolina Public Press, Asheville Watchdog and Mountain Xpress joined to argue that point Monday in court, and Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Steven Warren agreed Tuesday. Today’s teamwork session will be open to the media and public.
“After a year in which the public has had less access to public officials and the public process, we felt that this was the wrong time to lock a meeting that’s previously been open,” Daffron told me after the ruling. The joint effort, she said, “shows all local government entities, not just Asheville City Council, that we’re committed to advocating for everyone’s right to have access to the workings of their government.”
In an odd postscript, the council then canceled its planned livestream of the event — and decided instead to offer a recording later on YouTube.
Speaking of vigilance…
Lucille Sherman of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun has won the 2021 Sunshine Award for Journalism from the NC Open Government Coalition for her late-night detection and reporting of a legislative provision, buried in a 17-page bill, that could have kept many records on North Carolina death investigations secret.
The reporting was followed by protests and the governor’s veto of the bill, Senate Bill 168. Sherman talks about how it happened in my newsletter of last July 8.
Sherman credited her editor, Jordan Schrader, and reporters Nick Ochsner of WBTV and the aforementioned Kate Martin of Carolina Public Press with helping her report the story.
By the way, those folks are all among the members of the NC Watchdog Reporting Network, which is celebrating a year of collaborative investigative reporting. Happy Birthday, watchdogs.
➵ Read more about how that network operates in my newsletter last May 26.
Local voice: Chris Fitzsimon
I caught up with Chris Fitzsimon to get an update on States Newsroom, a network of newsrooms reporting on policy and politics, based in state capitals, with the administrative, financial and editing support of its national office based in Chapel Hill. Launched in 2019, States Newsroom continues to expand, in its network of newsrooms and in its content sharing. Fitzsimon is the director and publisher.