Bad apples, sour grapes

Published 2:47 pm Monday, July 23, 2007

By Staff
There are moments when public bodies have the right to meet behind closed doors and there are moments when doing such a thing does, indeed, smack of arrogance. Public officials ought to know the difference. Even more important than knowing the law, though, is honoring it. And if there’s any question or seed of doubt about which way to go, those people who hold the public’s trust in the palms of their hands would do well to err on the side of caution.
We’re glad to know that the trespassing charges against a North Carolina newspaper publisher have been dismissed and we hope his ordeal will serve as a neon-sign-worthy example of what leaders should not do when they are charged with handling the public’s business. This particular reminder comes from the Piedmont, but it couldn’t hit any closer to home than it does right now. That’s because it comes on the heels of an impromptu closed session of the Beaufort County Board of Education. That session has proved to be a sore spot to more than a few Beaufort County residents.
Alamance County District Attorney Robert Johnson rightly dismissed Friday a second-degree trespassing charge against publisher Tom Boney. Boney, who weekly publishes The Alamance News, was arrested May 29 for refusing to leave an airport authority meeting.
Boney contends the Burlington-Alamance Airport Authority illegally met in closed session in late May, according to The Associated Press. Boney said the airport authority illegally went behind closed doors to discuss issues surrounding a HondaJet engine plant, including $11 million in loans the group wanted the Burlington City Council and Alamance County commissioners to approve, according to an AP account. With public money at stake, Boney had no intention of leaving and he has not backed down from that stance.
Now, there will be those who read this and say that comparing the Alamance County incident with the local school board meeting last Monday is not comparing apples to apples. The Beaufort County school board met in closed session, after all, to discuss personnel issues and to hear appeals from teachers who were to be transferred from Eastern Elementary School. The school board also wanted to protect the attorney-client privilege. Based on those points alone, the board is within its rights to go into closed session, according to North Carolina’s statutes.
But to go into that closed session ahead of the announced special meeting time is shady at best.
A school system Building and Grounds Committee meeting adjourned around 5:30 p.m. on July 16. Some time after that, the school board convened a meeting that went immediately into closed session. The trouble with that is this: The board met before its scheduled special meeting start time of 6 p.m. Parents and students who thought they would get to speak on behalf of Beaufort County teachers Theresa Oakey and Roxanne Beeman were not afforded that opportunity. Worse than that, though, is the fact they didn’t even get to see the meeting convene or hear a school board member cite the statute that allows the closed session. That, too, smacks of arrogance.
If school board members were trying to “save” time by meeting earlier than announced, they missed the mark. They spent about 3.5 hours in closed session, announcing decisions to transfer three teachers and allow one to stay in place around 9:15 p.m. After that many hours, a few more minutes hardly matter. Thus, we’re left to wonder if the early start had anything to do with time or if it had everything to do with not facing the public.
So while these two closed sessions may not be identical “apples,” they are certainly growing on the same troubled tree. The school board’s error was an egregious one, and the body must take care to prune any further decisions that could erase the public’s trust.