Tuesday, October 26, 2021

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The people’s right to know & government secrecy do battle (again)

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Alamance County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr. is about the last person we would have imagined to be short-tempered, autocratic, and disrespectful.

Paisley, who presides over the commissioners’ semi-monthly meetings, is usually attentive, patient, mild-mannered, and easy-going. In fact, he’s so easy going, we’ve previously urged him to adopt a more businesslike style and move the pace of meetings along when they have tended to drag on and on over recent months.

Nonetheless, Paisley was uncharacteristically brusque and ill-tempered Monday morning when he gaveled down this newspaper’s reporter, Tomas Murawski, who tried to caution the commissioners that they were about to violate the state’s Open Meetings Law.

On the agenda for that day was a closed session – which for some reason was placed at the beginning of the meeting, rather than the end as is more customary for the board – and one of the stated reasons for the closed-door session was to be the commissioners’ consideration about acquiring property.

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Paisley read a portion of a motion that had already been prepared and was on the dais, citing the part of the Open Meetings statute’s exceptions that allows for a closed session for a few, narrow purposes.

But for reasons that were inexplicable then, and since, he left out of his motion three important criteria that are a prerequisite for going into a closed session to consider a property acquisition.

More than 20 years ago – after a revision in the state’s Open Meetings Law that curtailed some of the exceptions for closed meetings that had previously existed – the state’s attorney general issued guidance that before public bodies could go behind closed doors to pursue a property purchase, they must reveal the location of the property in question, the owner of the property, and the purpose for which the public body is considering the acquisition.

An earlier reporter for this newspaper cited that attorney general’s guidance to members of the Burlington city council in 2000 who insisted that they were going to go behind closed doors anyhow, without following any of the attorney general’s guidance.

The reporter and later this newspaper’s publisher tried to reason with the city officials, but they wouldn’t listen and in arrogant defiance refused to provide the pieces of information to which the public is entitled – even after they finished giving their purchase instructions in the illegally closed meeting.

Confronted with such intransigence in the face of a legal opinion from the state’s highest law enforcement officer, the newspaper was forced to sue the city council for violating the state’s Open Meetings Law.

A local judge agreed with the newspaper, but the city council was still undeterred and appealed to the state’s Court of Appeals.

Our legal fees mounted, but we felt the principle was more important: that public bodies follow the law, not just ignore and steamroll over the rights of the public and press to have access to appropriate public information.

The higher courts agreed even more thoroughly with the newspaper’s position than the local judge, and enshrined as a statewide precedent the attorney general’s three required disclosures: that public officials must identify the location of property being considered for purchase, the owner(s) of the property, and the purpose for which it is being considered.

This statewide precedent was set almost two decades ago, in 2002. Needless to say, our current reporters are well-schooled in the precedent which this newspaper had helped establish.

We’ve had to remind some local public bodies about those requirements occasionally, but most elected officials, when informed, will correct their oversight.
But, on Monday, when this newspaper’s reporter attempted to inform the chairman of the board of commissioners about the three elements missing from his motion, Paisley wouldn’t hear of it.

Paisley gaveled the reporter down, telling him to be quiet and sit down. He even directed the sheriff, who was in attendance, to intervene to threaten the reporter’s continued presence in the meeting.

“Don’t make me have to remove you,” the sheriff said to our reporter.

If the sheriff should have done anything, he should have removed the board chairman who was at that point violating state law.

One of the great weaknesses in North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law is the lack of any real teeth – i.e., any tangible, legal or criminal consequences – for individual public officials, like Paisley, who flaunt their own preferences for secrecy over the open government provisions of the state’s statutes.

Fortunately, county attorney Clyde Albright ultimately spoke up to point out that the motion, by then already adopted by the commissioners, should have included the three elements that the reporter had attempted to outline.

Albright revealed, as Paisley should have, that the land in question was at 1128 South Main Street; is owned by Iberia Bank; and that the commissioners were considering whether to acquire it for offices for the board of elections.

Thank you, Mr. Albright. That’s what our reporter was trying to say when he was so rudely silenced.

To his credit, Paisley apologized to the reporter after he was confronted by this newspaper’s visibly irritated publisher shortly after the meeting.

That was a good start.

But we’ve often considered that public actions and high-profile admonitions – like Paisley’s demands for the reporter to sit down and shut up, much less the threat to have him removed from the meeting – should have public apologies, not just private ones.

More than that, however, it seems to us that greater transparency by the commissioners could have prevented all of this – and any future incidents.

When closed sessions are anticipated for buying property, the motion – as printed in the background materials and written agenda – could easily include the three legally-required pieces of information.

In cases when public officials plan to go behind closed doors to confer with an attorney over legal matters, the same officials can anticipate the need to publicly identify the specific existing litigation they intend to discuss, which is another prerequisite for going into a closed meeting.

Commissioners have occasionally neglected to include that piece of information, as well, usually correcting the oversight after they come out of a closed meeting, rather than – as the law requires – before they go into one.

It’s been a rough year for this newspaper’s reporter, Murawski, and the newspaper’s publisher, Tom Boney, Jr. Collectively, we’ve been arrested once (wrongly), charged (improperly) with contempt while trying to cover court by a visiting judge, handcuffed, and expelled from the courthouse, and now told to sit down and shut up or you’ll be removed from the commissioners’ meeting.

Eternal vigilance is, indeed, the price of liberty.

[Editor’s Note: this editorial was written prior to the firing of the county attorney Wednesday morning.]

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