03/10/13 — Four-hour closed session minutes released

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Four-hour closed session minutes released

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 10, 2013 1:50 AM

The legally required minutes kept of a four-hour closed session of the Wayne County commissioners amount to four sentences, the News-Argus has learned.

State law requires government bodies meeting behind closed doors to continue to keep minutes, just as they do in open session. The minutes are intended to give the average person a clear understanding of what was said, according to the North Carolina Open Meetings Law.

But when the Wayne County Commissioners met Jan. 8 to talk about, among other topics, the county payroll system, the only records written down for the public to see, after four hours of talking, were four sentences:

"The Board of Commissioners consulted County Attorney E.B. Borden Parker, Finance Director Pam Holt, Paul Nunn with Nunn, Brashear & Co. and Danna Layne with nunn, Brashear & Co. concerning the recent payroll issues experienced by the county. The highlights of the findings from Nunn, Brashear & Co. were internal control issued concering transfer of funds to the payroll system, better segregation of duties needed in Human Resources and the Finance Office, Department of Social Services 1571 compliance issues and budgeting issues.

"The Board of Commissioners consulted with its attorney on the means to correct the payroll issues and be in compliance with the Local Government Commission regulations. After discussion, the Board of Commissioners concluded to change the County of Wayne payroll system back to GEMS (MS Govern) with the contract with Ceridian (for the payroll system) to continue until the July-December 2012 payroll data has been transferred to the GEMS system to ensure correct paymen to the county employees."

And it is not just the lack of detail.

The commissioners likely were not abiding by the law when they discussed the issue at all, according to state open meetings experts.

State law strictly limits what government bodies can talk about in private -- personnel matters, legal matters and a handful of other sensitive issues. A discussion of the county payroll system is not one of those issues, said a lawyer for the state Press Association.

Amanda Martin said the commissioners likely were breaking the law when they brought up the subject.

"With the exception of asking the attorney something like, 'Can we get out of the payroll contract without paying penalties?' or the legal ways to get the system cleaned up, I think the discussion about recent payroll issues should have taken place in an open session," she said. "There is not an exemption to permit discusssion of independent contractors or vendors in closed session.

"Put another way, I think they could get legal advice from the lawyer in closed session, but the discussion of what to do in light of that legal advice should not have been held in closed session."

Upon reconvening the open meeting, the commissioners -- without comment -- voted to return to the old payroll system. No discussion of the issue took place.

The state's Open Meeting Law requires that public bodies keep "full and accurate minutes" of all official meetings.

It also requires that, "When a public body meets in closed session, it shall keep a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired."

To receive the minutes, the News-Argus had to make a special request and wait two months. The Open Meetings Law says the minutes of a closed session must be made public once their release would no longer frustrate the purpose of the closed session -- and if there is an action taken or a decision has been made, there is no longer a need for the minutes to be kept secret.

The only other issue mentioned in the minutes is a reference to the board instructing Parker to review a proposed contract with Piedmont Natural Gas to lease property near the county airport to temporarily store equipment and piping.