The Open Meetings Law was enacted to ensure that elected officials are conducting the public’s business in public. It was not — as some elected leaders seem to think — enacted to provide a smokescreen so that unpopular and controversial subjects could be discussed without the public or the press being able to find out what their leaders are doing.
In today’s Smoky Mountain News, you’ll find a series of stories examining the 2018 closed session minutes of all the county and municipal boards in our coverage area of Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. We decided to embark on this examination for several reasons, but in a nutshell our purpose was pretty straighforward: to let the sunshine in, to gather information and let citizens decide how well their elected leaders are doing in their efforts to conduct the public’s business in public.
A portion of this law requires boards to keep “full and accurate minutes of all official meetings, including any closed sessions.” Obviously, words like “full and accurate” provide fertile ground for debate, but we think the intent of the law is pretty clear.
The statute also requires boards to release those minutes upon request by the public after the reason for the closed session has been settled. In other words, if the closed session was held so elected leaders could discuss a buyout clause for a fired town or county manager, then once the figure has been determined and the issue finalized, the details should be available for public examination.
We certainly aren’t fishing for any kind of “gotcha” story. But we did want to find out how these meetings were conducted, who kept minutes that were made it easy for the public to know what went on, and how often boards decided to deliberate behind closed doors.
We’ll rely on experts on the law to help us interpret how our local leaders are doing. It’s been my experience while covering Western North Carolina for the last 27 years that our elected leaders for the most part share a viewpoint similar to that of the journalists who cover them: they want to conduct as much of the public’s business in public as they are able. Over that time we’ve reported on some who have brazenly broken the law for the wrong reasons, but not that often.
There are times when reporters for the local newspapers are the only people who sit through entire public meetings, often waiting until elected leaders return from closed sessions before calling it a night. That’s our job, and so digging into those closed session minutes every so often should also be a part of our job. That’s another reason we decided to take on this project.
Look around this region and you’ll see good local newspapers and reporters like our cohorts at the Sylva Herald and The Mountaineer also taking their job seriously, digging into stories and subject matter that only local newspapers cover. It’s in our DNA, it’s what we do.
And we believe local matters, whether it’s the farmer’s market, the brewery, the plumber or the tire store. Local businesses make this a special place to live, and so supporting them is important. Locally owned newspapers and local public service journalism also help make our communities better places to live. Our plan is to keep providing it for many years to come.