The Transylvania Times -

Circumventing Transparency

 

March 15, 2018



As noted in Monday’s paper, citizens of North Carolina and the United States have access to a multitude of government documents, from emails to maps to photographs to minutes of meetings. That, however, does not mean that all documents that should be available to the public are made available. Over the years, government employees and elected officials have used a variety of techniques to stop the public from viewing government documents or attending meetings that should be open to the public.

One of the more popular ways for government bodies to circumvent the Open Meetings Law in North Carolina is to hold two-on-two meetings. In North Carolina, the Open Meetings Law applies only when there is a quorum. Thus, two members from a five-member board can meet secretly with two members of another five-member board to secretly discuss government business. For years the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners and Transylvania County Board of Education have used this practice when it comes to finances. This apparently occurred when the decision was made to seek $68 million for a school bond this November.

Another practice is to establish public-private partnerships. Depending upon how these entities are structured depends upon the public’s access to the organization’s records. In many instances, the public has no input on the composition of these boards, no access to their meetings and no access to their expenditures, even though these private organizations are primarily funded by taxpayers’ dollars. At the very best, the structure of these entities muddy the waters so that it is difficult for the public to determine if they have access to certain information or not.

Another tactic used by government boards is to abuse closed session meetings. There are several legitimate reasons to go into closed session: discussion of personnel, land purchases, legal matters, etc. But there have been instances when issues that do not fall into those legitimate categories also are discussed. But if no board member says anything outside the meeting, it’s nearly impossible to determine if such discussions took place.

Boards also are supposed to release minutes of closed sessions “so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired.” Yet, as a story on Page 13A in today’s paper notes, many boards either refuse to release minutes of their closed sessions or so heavily redact them that it is impossible to tell what transpired.

Board and government employees also stonewall. As the story on Page 13A details, the UNC Board of Governors produced summaries of all its 2017 meetings within three weeks. However, the North Carolina A&T University board of trustees and county commissions in Durham, Cumberland and Mecklenburg counties had not released any of their minutes. The latter claim that they are facing a backload, and that may be true. Or they just may be stonewalling. In these cases, citizens just have to be persistent.

Government officials also may claim that certain documents do not exist when, in fact, they do. Or they may give a citizen just part of a report and withhold the most informative or controversial parts. This practice is getting worse. According to CBS News, in one-third of the cases in which the federal government had been legally challenged to release documents last year, the government reversed itself and acknowledged that it had improperly tried to withhold information.

To deter public access to government records, some government employees use intimidation. Sometimes when citizens ask to see a government document they are asked “Why?” This is a question government employees should not ask and citizens do not have to answer.

These tactics, and others, have been used by elected officials and government employees of both political parties. Compliance with both the letter and intent of public access laws are as varied as the number of boards that exist.

There are a few good and legal reasons why certain government records and meetings are not open to the public; but they are the exception, not the rule. Citizens need to be aware of the techniques used to deter public access or circumvent the laws, and they need to recognize the agencies and individuals that employ those tactics, for the ultimate watchdog of inappropriate government behavior is an enlightened and observant citizenry.

 
 

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