Board made wrong decision, says press attorney
By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer
Jackson County commissioners’ failure to follow state Open Meetings Law was a failure to use common sense, said Mike Tadych, counsel to the North Carolina Press Association.
“This stuff isn’t rocket science,” Tadych said.
The state’s Open Meetings Law generally errs on the side of openness, permitting only seven causes for which to close the public and reporters out of discussions. But what is more telling is what the Open Meeting Law does not allow to be discussed in closed session. While qualifications of an employee may be discussed, the law specifically states “a public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting.”
Hence, county commissioners were in the right hearing concerns about the Economic Development Commission from their employee Tamera Crisp and discussing her role in those dealings. However, discussing the EDC itself — a non-county public body — or EDC chairman Tom McClure, who is not a county employee, was out of line.
“Certainly the performance of their employee as it relates to the EDC can be discussed in closed session,” Tadych said.
“ But why would this group have any privilege or authority to talk about another group?” Tadych posed.
Commissioners felt their financial contributions to the group, which were more significant than any of the other involved municipalities or local entities, provided them the right to have the discussion in closed session.
Open Meetings Law disagrees.
“The competence or performance of a non-employee is not the fodder of a closed session,” Tadych said. “It really ought not to be the fodder of the group at all.”
The end result of Superior Court Judge Zoro Guice’s ruling that commissioners acted illegally is not yet known. Commissioners and staff are not commenting on the issue until the case is fully settled, as Guice’s ruling did not award any damages to the plaintiffs. A motion to recover costs and attorney fees has been filed.
“We have a motion before the court,” McClure said. “Because of the violation of the Open Meetings Law, we’re entitled to the fees. That’s in the law.”
Tadych said that commissioners and staff in any county cannot used closed sessions to discuss information that might be sensitive but does not fall under the exceptions to the Open Meetings Law. It is the responsibility of counsel to ensure that commissioners are complying with the law in the best interest of the public.
“It’s all of our business, it’s all of our money, it’s all of our administration,” Tadych said.