Huntersville Continues to Struggle With Transparency

The problem with putting a camera in town hall so your town board meetings can be live streamed is that sometimes people actually watch the meetings.

A closed session was listed on the agenda for the pre-meeting held this past Monday, August 21. The ostensible basis for this closed session was described on the agenda as “receive confidential information, Attorney-Client Privilege.” As I’ve written about before at this site, NCGS 143-318.11 sets forth the situations when a public body is permitted to go into closed session. The statute also states in section (a) that it is the policy of this State that closed sessions shall be held ONLY when required to permit a public body to act in the public interest as permitted in this section. [emphasis mine] The word shall makes this mandatory – meaning that when the Huntersville town board goes into closed session, they shall only do so for one of the ten (10) limited reasons listed in the statute.

To ensure a public body adheres to the limited exceptions to the open meeting laws in NC set forth in NCGS 143-318.11, section (c) states that a public body may hold a closed session only upon a motion duly made and adopted at an open meeting. Every motion to close a meeting shall cite one or more of the permissible purposes listed in subsection (a) of this section… a motion based on subdivision (a)(3) of this section shall identify the parties in each existing lawsuit concerning which the public body expects to receive advice during the closed session.

Now let’s compare the statutory requirements in NCGS 143-318.11 with what actually transpired on Monday night. The closed session was called at the end of the pre-meeting discussion over how to proceed with the town’s legal needs after the retirement of the current town attorney at the end of this year. You can watch the video here, the closed session is called at approx. the 23:54 mark. Mayor Anarella begins by saying he needs a motion to… when he is cut off by Commissioner Guignard before finishing the sentence. Commissioner Guignard says so moved, and then the mayor finishes… to go into closed session. He asks for a second and a second is made (I was unable to determine who offered the second). After hearing no discussion he asks all those in favor to vote. The vote to go into closed session is unanimous. The mayor then tells those in the audience he is sorry but they’re going to have to leave because the board is going to have a closed session… which is when the video ends abruptly.

Is it possible that as soon as the video cut off the mayor proceeded to comply with NCGS 143-318.11 by citing the permissible purposes for which the closed session was being called? Sure, anything is possible. But given the mayor and town manager’s attitudes towards transparency, it’s highly unlikely. Why is it so difficult for the Huntersville town board to follow the law when it comes to closed sessions?

Is the town involved in litigation that residents should know about? If not, what legal issues were discussed during the closed session? According to David Lawrence and Frayda Bluestein with the UNC School of Government, “the exception [NCGS 143-318.11(a)(3)] permits a public body to discuss any legal issue with its attorney. The attorney-client privilege does not cover nonlegal discussions between attorney and client. Thus a public body may not hold a closed session with its attorney to obtain his business or political advice.” If you’re interested (because why wouldn’t you be interested in the exciting world of open meetings law in NC?), you can find a more in-depth primer from the UNC SOG on closed sessions under the attorney-client privilege here.

The town manager and town attorney were both present when the closed session was called. Neither spoke up to advise the board they were not in compliance with state law. Maybe the next town attorney will be more willing to encourage transparency and compliance with open meetings laws. But no commissioner was heard to object to the closed session procedure either. Only two commissioners – Boone and Gibbons – are still in their first terms. The other four commissioners have served the public for many years now and we should expect more from them. I welcome a response from any current elected official or town staff member – or even from one of the town board candidates – on this issue.

I sent a request to the town clerk this morning for minutes and/or a general account of the closed session held on August 21, including identification of any legal issues discussed. I will update this post upon receipt of any records.