After a meeting with publishers and editors of The Smoky Mountain News and the Waynesville Mountaineer back in mid-August, Shining Rock announced that it would suspend all board operations until it could address deficiencies in how its board announces its meetings, how its board enters into closed sessions and how its board responds to public records requests.
Via an Aug. 19 email, the board then cancelled its regular Aug. 21 meeting, and announced that an educational retreat would be held Sept. 15.
In North Carolina, there are four basic types of meetings: regular meetings, which are the most common and are held in a regular place, at a regular time per a published yearly schedule; recessed meetings, which are rare but are convened and then are “paused” until the public body reconvenes at a later time; emergency meetings, which are also rare and require immediate consideration of an unexpected issue; and special meetings, which aren’t rare at all.
All four types of meetings have different requirements for notifying citizens of the public body’s intent to hold the meeting; given that the Sept. 15 board retreat wasn’t a regular meeting, wasn’t a recessed meeting and certainly wasn’t an emergency meeting, that means it was a special meeting.
Public notice requirements for special meetings are a three-legged stool in which the absence of any of the three “legs” constitutes a violation of state statue.
Those three legs include physically posting notice of the meeting on the building in which it will be held, publishing notice of the meeting on the public body’s website and emailing notice of the meeting to a “sunshine list” consisting of media outlets and citizens who have requested to be included on such a list.
All three of those “legs” must be in place at least 48 hours prior to the meeting. Shining Rock Head of School Joshua Morgan said he’d posted the notice on the school building as required, and the school had also published notice of the meeting date and time to the school’s website.
Less than 48 hours before the start of the noon Sunday meeting, a sunshine email had not been received by The Smoky Mountain News.
When contacted by SMN about the oversight, Morgan said, “You were noticed on August 19th via the public information email.”
Unfortunately, that email was not sufficient to fulfill public notice requirements.
In its entirety, the email reads, “Good afternoon, Media Partner. This message is being sent to notify you that the SRCA Board of Directors have [sic] cancelled the upcoming meeting previously scheduled for August 21, 2019. The next scheduled Board activity will take place on September 15, 2019 for the Board retreat. The Board will then meet on September 25, 2019 for its next regular monthly meeting.”
Morgan’s assertion that the email served as proper public notice for the Sept. 15 meeting is missing two key elements — per North Carolina General Statue 143-318.12, titled “Public notice of official meetings,” section (b) plainly states that the public body “shall give public notice of the time and place of that meeting as provided in this subsection.”
The Aug. 19 email contained neither the place nor the time of the meeting. The school’s website noted the time of the meeting, but not the place.
Indeed, less than 48 hours before the meeting SMN had to email Morgan just to find out where it was being held.
Shortly after Morgan provided the meeting’s location, the school’s website was updated to reflect the location, but a sunshine email meeting statutory requirements was never received by SMN.
This is at least the second time in 2019 the school has held an illegal meeting, and the third time in the last two years.
Regardless of its legality, the retreat signals that Morgan, head of school since early July, is serious about addressing longstanding board impropriety.
According to the published agenda, the board’s appointed attorney, David R. Hostetler — whose job it is to prevent Shining Rock from violating open meetings laws — led a training session on open meetings laws.
Additionally, Hostetler was to lead a session on the legalities of dealing with public records requests, despite the school’s recent attempt to charge SMN for public records in violation of state law.
At least a dozen records requests by SMN dating back more than five weeks have remained unfulfilled as of press time. At least one of those is for records the school delivered to the Mountaineer — Haywood County’s community newspaper — weeks ago.
Also on the meeting’s agenda was the board secretary, Melanie Norman, who led a training session on keeping accurate minutes.
According to a Mountaineer story published Aug. 5, when that newspaper requested copies of closed session minutes that all public bodies are legally mandated to record, “ … SRCA board members said they did not have anything to provide.”
The noon meeting ended up convening 10 minutes late, as the only board members present, Anna Eason, Michelle Haynes and Melanie Norman, discussed whether or not they had a quorum. Shining Rock’s board handbook defines a quorum as “more than half.”
More than half of the eight-member the board was not physically present at the meeting. Board member Jason Moody, who Haynes said was entertaining out-of-town guests, was included in the meeting by conference call, but made no comments during Hostetler’s two-hour discussion on transparency.
Near the end of Hostetler’s presentation, board member Mike Mehaffey joined the meeting via laptop. Board members Chad Carver, Travis Crisp and Larry Wilkerson were absent. No one from the public attended the meeting.