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Wednesday, 22 February 2006 00:00

Open government always a good thing

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It’s easy for elected leaders to say they support open government. Proving that support is something altogether different and more difficult.

A recent case in Jackson County highlights what often happens in real life. A judge last week ruled that the Jackson County commissioners used an illegal closed session in January 2005 to discuss the future of Tom McClure. McClure was the director of Jackson County’s Economic Development Commission and head of the airport authority.

Last year commissioners learned that the county EDC had been making a lot of odd loans and was in a precarious financial position. So they called two closed sessions on Jan. 11 and Jan. 12. When a board decides to meet and exclude the public, it must state which of the seven allowable reasons for a closed session it is using. In this case, Jackson commissioners said it was to discuss personnel.

The problem is that McClure was not a county employee. He was a volunteer appointed to two different boards. After the closed sessions, the commissioners unanimously passed a complicated five-part motion that included removing McClure from both of those appointed positions. There was no discussion and no explanation why.

A look at the closed session minutes that were released last week after a judge’s order reveals that several statements are not attributed to anyone in particular. In other words, either the person taking the minutes did not have time to attribute the remarks or someone later edited them and decided those comments should not be attributable, thereby protecting whomever said them.

And there’s the problem. We think there are very few occasions when elected officials should get to conduct business outside the scrutiny of those who elected them. When they are allowed to do that, the closed sessions should be taped, either on audio or video. That way when the matter being considered no longer needs to be kept private, taxpayers can discover what their elected leaders said and thought about important issues.

As it is now, we must depend on note taking and then the subsequent editing by some bureaucrat or elected official. And, as this case proved, those notes are often ambiguous. This means closed sessions can too easily be abused.

The North Carolina Press Association has been trying to get just such a law passed. House Bill 514 was introduced in 2001 after numerous violations of the state Open Meetings Law revealed that public bodies were not keeping full and accurate minutes of their closed sessions. It failed by a five-vote margin. A similar measured was introduced in 2002, and this time it failed by a margin of 60-52.

During that session, Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, voted for the bill and for openness. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, and Rep. Roger West, R-Murphy, voted against it. Many of us in the news business are hoping this bill will come up again during the upcoming General Assembly session, and if it does we will seek the support of our legislators.

Open government is much more than some ambiguous right Americans should profess to support. It is the very foundation upon which our society is built. Elected leaders at every level need to embrace it, not tolerate it. And voters must demand it.

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