An attorney representing a city council must be well-versed in many aspects of state law to ensure the people and clients are appropriately protected.
This is why we find it so difficult to understand how Goldsboro city attorney Ron Lawrence missed something as simple as promoting a closed session meeting of the council so the body can discuss an investigation into one of its members. This is an actual violation of the state’s open meetings law in word and spirit. As Amanda Martin, general counsel to the N.C. Press Association, said Sunday in the News-Argus: “The law is crystal clear that a public body cannot discuss performance of a member of that public body in closed session.”
Need more? It can be found in G.S. 143-318 (a6), which says a body may not hold a closed session to consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment or removal of one of its members or members of any other public body.
It’s cut and dried. So why did Lawrence ask the city council during its April 1 work session to go into closed session to discuss a 78-page report of a city-approved investigation into the matter between Councilman Antonio Williams and city employee Shycole Simpson-Carter, Goldsboro’s community relations director? Mayor Chuck Allen said at that meeting that council members did not know enough about the report to discuss it April 1 and set a 4 p.m. May 6 hearing to examine the investigation’s findings. Allen took a big step in the city avoiding an open meeting violation by not going into closed session.
How about this. Can we assume that Lawrence believed he would be giving the council his opinion, which could fall under permitting a closed session for attorney-client privilege? No. The law is quite clear that discussing the report does not fall under protected attorney-client correspondence.
Then there’s the possibility of the report being a personnel matter, for which discussion also is permitted in closed session? No. The same chapter and verse that says the council cannot hold a closed session to discuss its own members is found under the section on personnel matters.
What we do know is that before going into closed session at any time, the council must hear a motion during an open meeting and the members must vote to go into closed session. The council must state the general statute permitting the closed session and what will be discussed.
If the council moves forward on May 6 with its plans for a closed session, it may prove to be one of the biggest blunders the body can make.