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Originally published: 2013-03-15 10:37:51
Last modified: 2013-03-15 10:59:14

Boone council's closed meetings vary

by Anna Oakes

The Boone Town Council discussed more matters behind closed doors than the councils of Asheville and Elizabeth City in 2012, according to meeting minutes. But the number of Boone's closed session agenda items vary from year to year, influenced by the different town issues that arise, council members say.

March 10 to 16 is Sunshine Week, an observance dedicated to the importance of open government and freedom of information. In conjunction with Sunshine Week, Watauga Democrat this year examines the closed session meetings of the Boone Town Council.

North Carolina's General Statutes grant several exemptions from the open meetings law, allowing government bodies to meet in closed session to discuss property acquisition, personnel issues, award selections, economic development projects, criminal misconduct and emergency responses to school violence or terrorist activity and to receive legal advice.

Public bodies must cite one of the statutory reasons above for each item on the agenda of a closed session meeting, which typically follows an open session agenda. No actions may be taken during closed sessions.

Boone saw a rise in the total number of closed session agenda items from 2009 to 2012, with 40 in 2009, 62 in 2010, 65 in 2011 and 78 in 2012. But the council discussed even more matters in closed session in 2008, with 83 agenda items.

Some closed session agenda items, however, were discussed at multiple meetings, including legal advice regarding the town's raw water intake project.

The duration of closed session meetings also fluctuated over the examined period between 2007 and 2012, ranging between an average 71 minutes in 2009 to 99.8 minutes in 2008. Closed session meetings averaged 98.7 minutes in 2012.

Watauga Democrat compared the number of closed session agenda items of the Boone Town Council to those of two other North Carolina cities -- Elizabeth City and Asheville -- for 2012 only. Elizabeth City is a college town with a 2010 population of 18,683, similar to Boone's 2010 Census count of 17,122. Asheville is a city of 83,393.

According to meeting minutes, the Elizabeth City Council discussed 17 agenda items in closed session last year, compared to 30 by the Asheville City Council and 78 in Boone. Additional study would be necessary to determine how the city councils compare over time.

Boone Mayor Loretta Clawson said she feels very comfortable with the closed session meetings held by the Boone Town Council.

"Yes, we do have a lot of meetings, but I think this shows that we care and are concerned about our community," Clawson said.

Councilwoman Lynne Mason said the Boone Town Council is very careful to keep closed session discussions only within what is allowable by law. She said town attorney Sam Furgiuele is excellent at preventing discussions from steering off course.

"I take that real seriously," she said.

Mason added that she believes the multi-year-long raw water intake project has contributed to the increased time spent in closed session over the past few years.

"We have a major project with property acquisition," she said.

Beth Grace, executive director of the N.C. Press Association, said the association receives a few calls about closed session meetings across the state each month.

"The concerns are always the same -- can these groups just decided to meet in secret, and what can I do to fight that?" she said. "There are always a number of agencies and commissions, etc., that violate the law routinely."

Grace encouraged citizens to know the law and to ask why a public body meets if a reason isn't given. The website offers a free download of North Carolina open meetings and public records laws, and the N.C. Open Government Coalition's Sunshine Center recently released a new open government app for smartphones.

"The real key is to keep fighting to keep government open," she said. "The more citizens who do that, the better and more responsive our governments will be."

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