By James McCarthy • Guest Columnist
Did the N.C. Department of Transportation hold an illegal meeting on Dec. 4 at Western Carolina University when it failed to give proper notification or invite the public? Actually there were two meetings held by the DOT on Dec. 4. One advertised and open to the public from 4 to 7 p.m. and the “no notification” meeting earlier on the same day at 2 p.m. for government officials only. The public was not notified nor was it invited to the 2 p.m. meeting. It is this earlier meeting that will be addressed here.
Although there are many opinions on what the law says — and believe me, I’ve heard many pros and cons on this issue — so I decided to go to the law itself. Using the Open Government Guide and conferring with legal counsel to direct me to the proper state statutes in determining if the DOT violated any laws by conducting the 2 p.m. meeting at WCU, there were three main statutes that appeared germane to the issue.
All three fall under the NC General Statute Sections 143-318.9, 10 and 12.
First, in Section 9, “Public Policy” provides that public bodies exist “solely to conduct the people’s business,” and “actions of the bodies to be conducted openly.”
That wasn’t done. The 2 p.m. meeting was not an open meeting because the people were deliberately excluded by the DOT, therefore the people’s business could not be conducted pursuant to state statute.
Second, in NCGS 143-318.10 (B) it states: “For purposes of the Open Meeting Law, public body means any appointed authority or other body of the Stat (DOT), the University of North Carolina or other political subdivision (WCU).” Any group that carries out activities on behalf of a public body or advises a public body is treated as a public body. This section determined both DOT and WCU to be “public bodies.”
We of the Jackson County Citizen Action Group view the aforementioned meeting as an “official” meeting and just because NCDOT never declared the 2 p.m. “meeting” either “open” or “closed” pursuant to NC General Statutes, “Meeting Categories A through G,” we have referred to this meeting, believing it was illegal, as the “Secret Meeting,” in that that meeting only became exposed to the public through the efforts of the media.
NCGS 143-318.12(B) states: “If a public body (DOT) holds an official at any time or place other than a time or place shown on the schedule filed pursuant to subsection (a) of this section it shall give public notice of the time and place of that meeting as provided in that subsection.” Public notice wasn’t given by the DOT. That law wasn’t followed by the DOT.
All DOT staff who where at the meetings in pay status can thank the citizens that were excluded from the “secret” meeting for footing the costs for conducting those meetings and paying the salaries and per diem(s) e.g. lodging, food, travel expenses, or other emoluments of those employees in attendance in pay status, especially those who travel from Raleigh to attend.
The elected officials need to be reminded of same, but I want to keep the focus on the DOT for now. Also, it is rather sad that of all the local elected officials only one appears to have been a whistle blower, which allowed myself and others to “crash the party.”
On entry I was asked if I was an “official.” I said yes, but I forgot to say what I was an official of.
Did Western Carolina University compromise its position by allowing the Department of Transportation to conduct what now appears to have been an illegal meeting on the WCU campus? WCU being a legal “Public Body” under NCGS doesn’t need even a hint of complicity with DOT in this regard. And in defense of the university, I don’t believe permission would have been given to the DOT to hold these meetings at WCU if the aforementioned had been known to WCU staff beforehand.
The blame belongs with DOT.
Excuses, as it wasn’t done purposely or done out of ignorance or even arrogance, is just not excusable. If the law was broken here, what we have is legal negligence and that behavior is not acceptable. I’m not going to speculate on what the DOT intent on calling the meeting was. I’ve heard they have been doing it for a long time as a standard operational procedure. If they have, it needs to stop and stop immediately. We of JAG will stay on it as a First Amendment issue. We have Americans coming home in body bags in defense of democracy and to many of us democracy starts first with our First Amendment rights.
(James P. McCarthy is President of the Jackson County Citizens Action Group)