Opinion: Daily Journal

Open-meetings law toothless no more?

A government body can’t block the media from reporting on one of its public meetings because its leader doesn’t like the coverage he thinks it will get.

Nor can it list an item on its public agenda, remove the item until the audience leaves the room, and then discuss it once the public has vacated the space.

Yet the state’s Military Affairs Commission did both those things — and more — in early February, flouting North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law. And as a result of those (probably) illegal actions, the General Assembly is considering new legislation that would add legal penalties to what has been rather toothless transparency laws.

At its Feb. 7 meeting, the military commission was slated to hear a presentation from retired physicist John Droz. Droz is a critic of state laws forcing utilities to purchase renewable energy and an opponent of the placement of large wind-powered generation plants in areas that could interfere with some military operations.

Droz’s presentation was listed on the commission’s agenda, which was emailed to members but neither posted on the commission website nor listed with the Secretary of State’s office (additional transparency no-nos). In fact, the meeting itself wasn’t “noticed” to the general public in advance.

Carolina Journal learned of the meeting, and our Dan Way attended to observe the presentation. Droz was to discuss (among other things) security concerns related to the closeness of the massive Amazon Wind Farm near Elizabeth City to a large military radar installation in Virginia that tracks aircraft and boats coming to the United States from Central America — some of them carrying illegal drugs and other contraband.

But when Droz was ready to offer his presentation, the commission chairman, retired Brig. Gen. Bud Martin, and Larry Hall, the new secretary of military and veterans affairs, balked. They didn’t want Way to report on the meeting or two other members of the public who were observing the proceedings to talk about what happened in the room.

Outside the meeting room, Hall told Way he didn’t want a single media outlet covering the presentation, and that it would be rescheduled, possibly at a larger space where more reporters could attend.

Outrageous. Hall, if anyone, should understand the state’s Open Meetings Law. Until December, he was the Democratic leader in the state House, and the General Assembly drafts and passes laws related to government transparency.

It got worse. After Hall, Way, and the two other attendees departed, Martin let Droz make his presentation to the commission, quite aware that only the members and Droz witnessed and discussed the materials.

Shenanigans like this are why governments are expected to hold their proceedings in public, and why meaningful laws are needed to ensure that transparency.

The Military Affairs Commission flunked that test. Several media experts we talked to said the spirit if not the letter of the law was violated.

The good news is, some lawmakers are taking this issue more seriously than their predecessors have. They’re backing legislation that would make it a crime to violate open meetings or public records laws.

Sens. Norm Sanderson, R-Pamilco, and Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, have co-sponsored Senate Bill 77. It would make a violation of those transparency laws a misdemeanor, carrying a fine of up to $200 and a jail sentence of as much as 20 days. Sanderson cited the situation involving CJ and the Military Affairs Commission as part of the inspiration for the bill.

Good. As noted media attorney John Bussian told us, North Carolina has “some of the worst public records laws in the country.” Everyone should applaud reasonable steps to strengthen those laws, and punish public officials who knowingly keep the public in the dark about the operations of our government.

Rick Henderson is editor-in-chief of Carolina Journal.