Often citizens rely on the media to learn about the workings of local government. In Fayetteville, that means The Fayetteville Observer and Up & Coming Weekly. Out of town TV stations rarely cover city council or county commission meetings. Radio stations used to but haven’t in many years. Talk show hosts get their information from the papers.
When a neighborhood issue piques the interest of residents, they turn out. The Haymount crowd showed interest when a private school wanted to locate in a historic house on Morganton Road. They were opposed to it, and the city council voted it down. Residents of a suburban neighborhood in West Fayetteville were concerned about a rezoning issue and attended a council meeting. And again, council rejected the rezoning.
Every once in a while, a major citywide controversy flares up and the citizenry awakens. So, day to day and week to week, people depend on the Observer and Up & Coming Weekly for news of what goes on in city hall and the county courthouse. Journalists attend the meetings regularly. But, they’re not always welcome.
Over the course of the last year-and-a-half, city council has held nearly 30 closed or private meetings barring the public and media representatives. The two main subjects of discussion, I believe, were contracts involving construction and management of the new baseball stadium and nearby private investments, plus the proposed city/county 911 emergency communications center. County commissioners have a significant interest in the 911 call center but have not held any meetings behind closed doors.
North Carolina law says, “It is the policy of this State that closed sessions shall be held only when required to permit a public body to act in the public interest as permitted in this section. A public body may hold a closed session and exclude the public only when a closed session is required.” Note that the statute says a public body may hold a closed session. It doesn’t say that it must. There are nine specific and very limited reasons that a public body may hold closed meetings. It’s up to the city and county attorneys to enforce the law governing private discussions.
This is the preamble to general statute § 143- 318.9, which is entitled “Meetings of Public Bodies:” “Whereas the public bodies that administer the legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, and advisory functions of North Carolina and its political subdivisions exist solely to conduct the people’s business, it is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly.”
It’s clear that local journalists and the companies they represent have lost faith in city council’s ability to distinguish between the rule and the few exceptions to the rule. Only one member of council has personally assured this reporter that he will try to be more attuned to the discussions that go on behind closed doors and call out his colleagues if they veer from the rule.