The recent brouhaha over a leak on the city council has gotten many on the council up in arms. It has also put the spotlight on open meetings and what business is and is not subject to our state’s open meetings laws.
    As a young reporter, I had a crash course in the state’s open meetings laws. The local community college was involved in an internal squabble. Some members of the board of trustees wanted to fire the college’s president. {mosimage}
    Others wanted to keep him. They tried to do most of their bickering behind closed doors — even though most of the time what they wanted to talk about did not fall into the realm of a closed meeting.
    So, it was with a copy of the state’s open meetings law clutched firmly in my hand that I stood the board down one day. It’s the kind of right versus wrong moment that young reporters dream about. I had right on my side, and I was not going to stand for any business going on behind closed doors. The board was, as you can imagine, rather surprised that a 22-year-old reporter would call them on the carpet. They railed against it. But I was right. Later, when everything came down, the very folks who were ready to blow a gasket when I questioned their practices, wanted to use the law to bring discussions on the president’s annual review out into the open. They were wrong.
    The state’s sunshine laws were not written to give boards an excuse to conduct business outside the sight of the public. Nor were they written to give board members an out when things don’t go their way. What is covered by the open meeting laws should be respected — personnel matters, real estate transactions, economic development, etc. If it is covered by the open meetings law as something that should be discussed in a closed session, then no one on the council has the right to discuss the gist of that meeting outside the confines of that closed session. All the law requires is that if an action is taken, then it is reported by the board.
    That doesn’t mean that every statement made within the closed session is discussed or shared with the local media.
    It may seem odd that I am writing this, but Fayetteville has a problem. We have too many leaders who want headlines and not enough who want to do what is right. Transact the business of this city, make good decisions and you won’t have to seek headlines. You’ll get them because people see you as someone who knows what they are doing; as someone who is truly serving this city. If you have to seek the spotlight, it’s because you’ve got the newspaper on your speed dial and have already written your next headline.
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