07/19/10 — Law: Meetings cannot be closed

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Law: Meetings cannot be closed

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 19, 2010 1:46 PM

With the next meeting just days away for the District 2 school board member search committee, it remains unclear if the committee will attempt to meet behind closed doors.

Such a closed-door meeting would violate the state's Open Meetings law, said Amanda Martin, an attorney for the N.C. Press Association.

County commission Chairman Jack Best, who is serving as committee chairman, Friday afternoon said he had not spoken with County Attorney Borden Parker for an opinion on whether the meeting could be closed.

For now, it appears the Wednesday interview meeting will be open. The meeting will start at 1 p.m. in Room 111 of the Jeffreys Building, 134 N. John St.

A second review session will be held Thursday afternoon at the same time at the same location.

Best said he was unsure of the status of the meeting.

"We'll have to wait and see," he said.

Best had no further comment. Parker was out of the office and could not be reached for comment.

Commissioners will meet in special session Friday at 9 a.m. to consider the committee's recommendation. The meeting will be held in the commissioners' meeting room on the fourth floor of the county courthouse annex.

Wayne is the only county in the state that gives its commissioners that power. The appointment authority is a holdover from the merger of the Goldsboro city and county schools systems.

Up until now, the committee meetings have been open. However, at its meeting last week, members Jimmy Williams suggested that the meetings, if possible, be closed.

He said the closing was not for the committee, but for the candidates. Williams, a former superintendent for the county's public schools, said he was pleased there were five candidates and that he did not want them to feel intimidated or embarrassed.

Williams said he considers it a personnel issue. Parker was not present at last Monday's meeting when Williams suggested closing the next two sessions.

The state's Open Meetings Law allows closed session for personnel.

However, making a recommendation for someone to fill a vacant elected office is not personnel and is not covered by the exemption, Ms. Martin said.

The law allows boards, including groups such as the search committee, to meet behind closed doors "to consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee."

It adds that "a public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting. Final action making an appointment or discharge or removal by a public body having final authority for the appointment or discharge or removal shall be taken in an open meeting."

During last week's meeting, members finalized a list of 12 questions that the candidates will be asked. Best is expected to ask the formal questions and committee members will be able to ask their own questions as well.

Five people have asked to be considered for the office left vacant when longtime board member Shirley Sims stepped down effective June 30. They are Ven Faulk of Dudley, a former school board candidate; Lawrence Durham of Dudley, who is the cousin of committee member Robyn Wade; Len Henderson of Dudley; Dr. Dwight Bernard Cannon of Dudley; and Linda Pigford of Mount Olive.

Joyce Hatch of Mount Olive, who, according to the Board of Elections, actually lives in District 4, had originally put her name into the hat but has since asked that she not be considered.

Serving on the committee with Best, who appointed the committee, and Williams are Paul Smalley, a former Mount Olive town commissioner; Thelma Smith, vice chairman of the school board; Andy Anderson of Pikeville, senior member of the Wayne County commissioners; Jim Parker, a former school board member; Shirley Bond, a retired educator; and Ms. Wade, a radio announcer.