Open meeting laws need more teeth
Recent disciplinary action taken against Clyde Police Chief Gerard Ball is a prime example of why North Carolina’s Open Meeting laws need to be strengthened.
The purpose of open meeting and open record laws are to keep public bodies open and honest to the public.
The laws require government boards to hold meetings in public and to make government records available to the public, but each state’s laws vary and some states have stronger laws than others. The vague language in the North Carolina Open Meeting Act should be a concern because it is hindering the public from knowing important information about public officials.
This law is the reason why we are unable to report the reasons behind Ball’s 30-day suspension without pay. Clyde Board of Aldermen called an emergency meeting at 1:30 p.m. on Friday for a 4 p.m. meeting.
The board then decided to continue the closed meeting on Wednesday morning without a public notice. And the board was completely within its legal right to do so.
Officials should make every attempt to notify the public well in advance of a meeting — even if it is a closed session.
North Carolina law states that employers keep personnel information confidential, even if it does pertain to a public official, and are not compelled to reveal specific reasons for disciplinary action.
While many states have laws that specify acceptable circumstances for calling an emergency meeting, the North Carolina law states that an emergency meeting can be called simply “because of generally unexpected circumstances that require immediate consideration by the public body.”
The reasoning is general enough that almost anything could constitute an emergency meeting, which can be called without public notice. We don’t expect Clyde or other local towns to take advantage of the law, but nothing is legally stopping them from it – that is the problem.
We feel that the public is entitled to know the specific misconduct of an official who is holding an important position like police chief. A government not being open and honest with its constituents only breeds distrust.
We also understand the importance of an individual’s privacy when it comes to their job and family, but public and elected officials know that they must forego much of that privacy to hold such a position.
The public must continue to fight for more comprehensive laws for open government and understand the laws we do have to make sure your local government is following the law.