Burlington newspaper asks NC Supreme Court for expedited review of appeal

The Times-News of Burlington is seeking review by the state supreme court of an order denying access to closed-session minutes of the Alamance-Burlington School System's Board of Education. The newspaper filed a lawsuit against the school in October after the board refused to provide unredacted minutes from May meetings where the performance of Superintendent Lillie Cox was discussed. Cox resigned and was given a $200,000 severance package. 

On Wednesday, the Times-News filed a writ of certorari and a petition for expedited review in the N.C. Supreme Court asking the state’s highest court to overturn a decision denying access to unredacted closed session minutes. 

The newspaper asked the Alamance-Burlington School System for copies of unredacted minutes of closed sessions the board of education held in May. The board met in closed session to discuss personnel matters, and at the end of May Superintendant Lillie Cox resigned with a $200,000 severance package. The school board has not explained why Cox was given a large severance or the reasons for her departure. 

In October, the newspaper filed a lawsuit against the school system seeking access to the unredacted minutes. In early December, Special Superior Court Judge Lucy Inman dismissed the lawsuit. 

In Wednesday’s filing with the supreme Court, the Times-News alleges that the school system is seeking to tax the newspaper with its attorneys fees and that a hearing has been scheduled for January 12 in Alamance Superior Court, despite the newspaper having already given notice of appeal. After the school system made its request for fees, the newspaper filed a motion in the Court of Appeals asking for expedited review there. The Court of Appeals denied that request. 

The newspaper is asking the Supreme Court to bypass an appeal to the Court of Appeals and to give the matter an expedited review in order to prevent government agencies from using protracted appeals to drive up the costs involved in public records lawsuits. 

At issue in the case is the intersection between the N.C. Open Meetings Law and the N.C. Public Records Act. Minutes of closed sessions are subject to the public records law, but the open meetings law allows them to be withheld as long as disclosure would “frustrate the purpose” of the closed session.

The school board contends that because it is a personnel matter, the minutes are protected under that provision of the open meetings law and the School Board Employees Act, which contains some privacy protections for school employees. The newspaper contends that once Cox resigned, release of the information would no longer frustrate the purpose of the session, and that the privacy protections for employee personnel files do not survive once that information is shared with the board of education in a meeting.

The newspaper cites the Supreme Court’s decision in News & Observer Publishing Co. v. Poole, which involved similar questions about employee privacy provisions and meeting minutes, for its position. The Alamance case is not identical to Poole, though, in that the Poole Commission was not subject to the Open Meetings Law. 

Read coverage of from the Times-News here