At their last meeting of 2010, the Haywood County Commissioners made what might seem like a rather mundane decision. They chose to release a slew of minutes from their closed sessions over the preceding few months.
While the information the minutes revealed was relatively unremarkable — details of negotiations around the price of Clyde’s old Wal-Mart site, discussions about litigation at the fairground over some allegedly unpaid bills, easement purchases and other fairly ordinary transactions — the simple fact that they were released without request is a small victory for the cause of more open government.
To Marty Stamey, interim county manager, it’s not a remarkable step at all.
“It’s been that way as long as I can remember,” said Stamey. The board, he said, reviews closed session minutes regularly and, if there are no legal barriers, releases them to whoever would like to see them.
That’s not surprising, given the background of Chairman Mark Swanger, who won the North Carolina Press Association’s First Amendment Award in 2006 and spent much of his professional life combating corruption in a 32-year career with the FBI.
But while it may be a matter of course in Haywood County, the practice isn’t necessarily standard protocol elsewhere. In Macon County, County Manager Jack Horton — who held the same post in Haywood County — said they usually only give out closed session minutes when a request is made.
Swain County’s manager Kevin King confirmed that the modus operandi is much the same there. If the county manager’s office gets a request, they’ll filter it through the county attorney, but proactive steps aren’t the norm.
Amanda Martin, attorney for the North Carolina Press Association, said that the story isn’t much different across the state, although it should be.
“It’s not that normal, but it’s what should happen,” said Martin. “They [local governments] should have some procedure in place to routinely review and release information that can be released. I would say it’s unusual, but that that is the proper procedure rather than waiting for someone to ask for them.”
Martin posits that the motives behind keeping closed session minutes closed aren’t necessarily sinister, but often stem from laziness or fear of stirring trouble.
“That’s the path of least resistance,” said Martin. “It would be an extra step to have to undertake. They also probably know that there aren’t going to be any problems until someone asks.”
Under North Carolina law, public bodies can go into closed session for nine reasons that are spelled out by statute. No action may be taken in closed session, and minutes must be kept. Closed session minutes can be released whenever the issue at hand has been dealt with.
There are some things that will never come before the public eye, like personnel records and issues, but nearly everything else that’s done in closed session can, legally, go public at some point. When and whether that’s done is up to the governing body, in this case, the board of commissioners.
In Haywood County, Stamey said the board is almost always in favor of making things public, and he can’t remember any incarnation of the board thinking differently.
“You have to do things with transparency,” said Stamey. “You can’t just go in there and do things and never tell people what you did.”
And according to Martin, that view is laudable and is an important step towards more open, transparent governance.