Open meetings law needs teeth

Published 6:22 am Monday, June 11, 2007

By Staff
(This editorial originally appeared in The Times-News of Burlington.)
There is no definitive proof that action by the Burlington-Alamance Airport Authority concerning $11 million in loans with area banks is one of those backroom deals brokered by a select few all bartering under a haze of gray smoke.
But it sure smells like one.
True or not, folks like to conjure this particular image when public power brokers talk about — then vote on — big money packages outside public view. It’s a refrain so common in fact that it has become a clich/. Funny thing about clich/s, they wouldn’t become clich/s if these things didn’t happen with great frequency. And often the clich/ morphs into perception and perception — warranted or not — then becomes fact.
This is where the Airport Authority now finds itself after a turbulent week of closed-door talks, debate with an area newspaper editor-publisher, an appearance by law enforcement, followed by more discussion and a vote. The authority agreed to borrow $5 million to buy 118 acres off Tucker Street Extension near the Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport for future — and at that time unnamed — economic development and to get a million cubic yards of dirt to fill in a ravine to extend the runway. It also has an option to borrow another $6 million to develop the land. The decision came after the Burlington City Council and Alamance County Board of Commissioners — as required by state law — voted to allow the authority to seek two loans totaling $11 million.
In all, eight financial institutions are involved in making the loans, including two linked to a pair of authority members, both of whom recused themselves when the final vote was taken but participated in the discussions.
There goes that perception thing again.
If state Rep. Cary Allred, R-Alamance, is correct, then all of this secret action was accomplished to help lure the engine maker for HondaJet to the airport, thus creating about 50 jobs. The loans will be paid through the state using largely federal dollars, Allred told the Times-News after investigating the deal because of his own frustrations with the authority’s handling of the issue.
Questions about the matter were first raised by Tom Boney Jr., editor and publisher of the Graham-based weekly The Alamance News. Boney refused to leave an authority meeting Tuesday when the board voted to go into closed session but would not give assurances to Boney that it would not discuss the loans. State law generally requires public bodies to conduct their meetings in public, but allows them to go behind closed doors to discuss some matters, including personnel and land acquisition. The authority’s attorney would not give a particular reason for the closed session but referred to an exemption in North Carolina Open Meetings Law that allows public bodies to discuss economic-development projects. The authority contends it acted appropriately and had Boney taken into custody by the county sheriff because he refused to leave the meeting.
But Amanda Martin, an attorney for the North Carolina Press Association, also questioned the validity of the closed meeting and said the exemption refers only to specific economic-development projects and excludes general closed-door discussions about obtaining loans and economic development.
Because it met behind closed doors, it’s impossible at this time to prove the Airport Authority actually discussed the loans in secret. … Its refusal to field questions posed by a member of the public is also troublesome. Public bodies responsible for handling taxpayer dollars should be prepared and willing to talk about when, why and how that money will be spent.
Too often, however, officials would rather seek the seclusion offered by whatever loophole they can find in North Carolina’s flawed Open Meetings Law. As written, the law gives boards too many hiding places and no recourse for citizens to flush them out. When a board is found to be in the wrong, it faces no penalty for doing so.
The state seems in no hurry to try to cobble together a better law. This is a shame. Because until the law gets some strength behind it, boards will continue to operate in the shadows.
That’s the perception anyway.