A reminder to keep the public in mind

“’Official meeting’ means a meeting, assembly, or gathering together at any time or place ... of a majority of the members of a public body for the purpose of conducting hearings, participating in deliberations, or voting upon or otherwise transacting the public business within the jurisdiction, real or apparent, of the public body. However, a social meeting or other informal assembly or gathering together of the members of a public body does not constitute an official meeting unless called or held to evade the spirit and purposes of this Article.”

GS 143-318.10-d

Newspapers make a big deal out of open meetings and open government. We believe it is our duty to make waves when some entity is either purposely or out of ignorance not taking the right steps to make sure the public’s business is done in the open. Open government is each American’s birthright, so we speak up when we think there’s a problem.

Last week we wrote two stories about the state’s Open Meetings Law (quoted above) and potential problems in two communities here in Western North Carolina. Here’s what’s going on.

In Macon County, commissioners have gotten into the troubling habit of recessing their meetings instead of ending them and then holding a new meeting. If a meeting is recessed, the public body is under no obligation to re-publicize the continued meeting. That makes it too easy to exclude the public, whether that’s the intent ornot.

Recessing some meetings makes life for commissioners a lot easier, and we certainly understand that it is sometimes necessary. However, in Macon County 15 were recessed in the first nine months of the year. In Jackson County the number was three and in Haywood the number is one.

As Commissioner Jim Davis told this newspaper, “... we’re not doing anything illegal.”

He’s right, and we’re not suggesting they are.

However, it’s just not a good way to do the public’s business. Commissioners should go out of their way to keep their bosses — the taxpayers — informed of what they are doing and how they can participate. It’s called good government. As an attorney for the N.C. Press Association said, “Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.”

If they have so much business to cover, then hold two regularly scheduled meetings a month. Most similar-sized counties do. But don’t take steps that by their very nature confuse the public.

Over in Jackson County, the state Department of Transportation official probably thought they were just being polite by inviting elected officials to a private meeting to discuss a road project. Unfortunately, the state officials conducting the meeting are putting county commissioners and other elected officials in a precarious place.

The DOT plans to meet with elected officials from 2 to 3 p.m. on Dec. 4, and then hold a public meeting from 4 to 7 p.m. The meetings are to discuss the controversial Southern Loop, a proposed highway that could bisect Jackson County and has been the subject of heated discussion over the past few years.

Again, the DOT may not be intentionally trying to abuse the state’s open meeting laws. However, getting a majority of any elected board together to discuss anything that’s that elected entity’s business is a clear violation of the law.

In truth, even getting less than a majority together with the clear intent to avoid the majority mandate is a violation of the spirit of the state Open Meetings Law.

This one is also easy to fix. Meet with town and county administrators and board chairmen, and have them update their colleagues. Or just hold the meeting and invite the public.

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