Archived Opinion

Closed session minutes an opportunity for openness

What a great way to earn public trust: a public body decides that minutes from closed sessions no longer need to be secret, and therefore it periodically votes to make them public.

That’s what the Franklin Town Alderman Bob Scott asked the Franklin board to do. Scott was concerned about the information in one particular set of minutes, but he also understood what he was doing. If the town adopted a formal policy, the public would be a lot better informed as to what went on behind closed doors when aldermen lawfully shut out the public from their debate.

Here’s the deal about closed meetings and public bodies. The North Carolina Open Meetings Law gives public bodies seven lawful reasons to close their discussions. Those seven reasons are clearly defined, and minutes must be kept. How detailed those minutes are depends on each group of elected officials, but it must be discernible what was being discussed and who was saying what.

Once the reason for going into the closed meeting is past — say an industry has finished negotiations and announced plans to build — then the minutes become a part of the public record.

Most boards — including Franklin’s — adhere to the letter of the law. But what becomes of those closed session minutes? Reporters and the public seldom request them. In truth, most of what took place in those meetings is never revealed despite the fact that taxpayers and voters could gain valuable insight from them.

We think Franklin should have set itself up as the most open board around. It did not change its policy, but merely formalized what’s already taking place: once every few months, its attorney will review closed session minutes and determine if they can be released. That’s OK, but the public would be better served by the policy Scott proposed.

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Franklin Alderman Bob Scott is to be commended for his commitment to open government. The public and elected officials need to understand that nothing has to be discussed in closed session, that the law gives public bodies a few exceptions where they are allowed — if they choose — to go behind closed doors. Some personnel matters probably should be discussed privately, but many times it seems public bodies close their meetings when the reasons for doing so seem suspect.

Franklin’s isn’t a bad policy, but we think a better one is to formally include closed session minutes in board packets whenever the reason for closing the meeting has passed. Rather than have an attorney make the decision, we think elected officials or the manager could more easily — and cheaply — make that call. The onus for conducting the public’s business in the open is on the elected officials, and they will suffer the fallout if they wrongfully shut the door on their constituents.

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