Opinion: Daily Journal

When No One Knows What Goes On Behind Closed Doors

Many would consider it bad enough that a majority of the Wake County Board of Education last week approved an ethics policy that could be manipulated or abused to hammer political opponents on the board publicly. But the rest of the story, as radio commentator Paul Harvey famously said, would appear even more alarming.

This is a story about goings-on in private sessions, at which board members close the public out of public business for reasons both legal and, some are saying, questionable, and take action that should raise eyebrows for even this bickering board.

Ostensibly, the Democratic majority, spurred on by an angered chairman Keith Sutton, pursued the penalty policy for what easily could be described as petty political reasons. Sutton did not respond to attempts to get his input for this article.

Apoplexy abounded this past spring when former board chairman Ron Margiotta disclosed before the board did that Virginia Beach, Va., school superintendent Jim Merrill had been chosen to be the next Wake superintendent.

The thinking was, apparently, that it must have been one of Margiotta’s former allies on the board — John Tedesco’s name was featured prominently — who leaked Margiotta the “confidential” information while the board was still trying to negotiate a compensation package.

“I think the majority board members have kind of felt like a couple of different times — they have tried to make inferences, maybe I should say — that board members have let private information escape, so-called — what they say is — private information, escape,” said Republican board member Deborah Prickett.

“It does seem like once we make decisions behind closed doors, they’re public anyway,” Prickett said. “It’s not like a child is being affected by it or anything like that, so it certainly doesn’t have any [negative] impact.”

Margiotta “came out and said he didn’t talk to any board members,” Prickett said, but that didn’t assuage the dissed Democrats.

“I guess anybody could say anything” when making accusations, said Prickett, who reminded this reporter that many people not on the elected board were in the closed-door meetings and otherwise privy to knowledge of Merrill’s selection.

“There was nothing confidential about picking a superintendent. His contract was completely public. It was just that we discussed the contract behind closed doors, and the process went on for several months,” she said. State open meetings law does allow employee contract discussions to be conducted in closed session.

But this dust-up is just a lead-in to the rest of the story.

The state open meetings law (PDF) requires that “Every public body shall keep full and accurate minutes of all official meetings, including any closed sessions. They may be written, sound, or video and sound recordings.” “When a public body meets in closed session, it shall keep a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired.”

Compare how Prickett says Wake’s closed meetings are conducted to what the law requires and determine for yourself if it passes muster.

“The minutes we take in those meetings behind closed doors are basically scrubbed by our attorney, so the public never really gets to know too much about what goes on. The meetings are not recorded,” except in the case of student disciplinary measures, Prickett said.

When reviewing minutes from closed meetings, “you don’t even know how people vote or anything,” she said. At times she has asked specifically for minutes to reflect something she said during the private discussions “and then they’re not in there because the minutes are so scrubbed.”

But wait, there’s more.

“Behind closed doors I have been asked to recuse myself from certain votes,” Prickett said. “I have not done that because I feel like my vote represents my district. It may not always represent my views.”

There are occasions when board members are asked to perform “thumbs-up, or straw votes, to let’s just see where we stand” before an official vote is taken, Prickett said.

“Those votes are never recorded,” she said.

“It’s really putting all of us in a precarious situation,” Prickett said.

“I have no way of protecting myself” from allegations that could be made and not refuted, she said. “You have no recourse because there are no minutes.”

A measure to require all public bodies to record meetings held in closed session passed the N.C. House this year, but died in the Senate. Similar bills have been introduced in previous years.

But now there is an ethics policy that allows the board, by a two-thirds vote, to reprimand a fellow board member, even ask the member to resign, if something is leaked from a meeting. Even Democrat Susan Evans sees that as an overreach and voted against the policy.

“Hopefully we would never have to implement any of these sanctions,” Evans said. “I do have to express my concerns whether or not this could become a vehicle for certain board members to take out vendettas on other board members.”

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.