Open meeting or French toast

by Kelly Corbett
Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The public has received spotty information about a possible school bond referendum from New Hanover County Board of Education retreats, updates during regular meetings and the most recent joint public meeting between the school board and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

If the commissioners approve the bond referendum for the ballot, citizens will vote on the final decision.

During private breakfast meetings, held almost every other month, about two commissioners and two school board members meet to update each other and discuss issues like the bond referendum. 

Typically, the chair and vice chair of each board attend. County manager Chris Coudriet and Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley also attend the breakfast meetings, held either at a restaurant in Monkey Junction or the New Hanover County Government Center.

During a Monday, Oct. 28 phone interview, Commissioners Chairman Woody White credited the breakfast meetings with the decision to build a new northern elementary school.

“One of the benefits of these meetings was that we decided to go ahead and commit to funding the elementary school in the Porters Neck area without waiting on bond proceeds,” White said. “That would not have happened, I’m convinced, if we had not engaged in these periodic, informal meetings.”

New Hanover County attorney Wanda Copley and deputy county attorney Kemp Burpeau said there would need to be a quorum for the meetings to be public.

Copley said she is always telling commissioners to be careful and that they cannot have more than two people present.

“If it’s just a social meeting the whole board could be there. You can discuss public information and public matters, you just can’t have a whole quorum there to do it,” Burpeau said. “… You could say as a policy, wouldn’t it be nice that whenever two members of the board get together with two other members of the board someone be invited, but I mean that’s not the legal requirement. That would just be someone making the decision to do it.”

Commission Vice Chairwoman Beth Dawson mentioned the breakfast meetings during a joint meeting between the commissioners and Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen.

“Every month or so, a couple of members of the board of commissioners and a couple of members of the school board meet for breakfast just informally to talk about issues,” Dawson said. “… I know we are getting closer and closer to discussions regarding what may be coming up and coming down the road as far as a school bond referendum.”

School board chairman Don Hayes also mentioned the breakfast meetings during the most recent joint meeting, calling them important and beneficial.

Hayes said, during a Tuesday, Oct. 29 telephone interview, that similar breakfast meetings have been held for years.

Attorney Amanda Martin, who represents the North Carolina Press Association and North Carolina newspapers, said if there is not a majority then the meetings do not trigger the open meetings statute.

Frayda Bluestein, University of North Carolina professor of public law and government, said to constitute a public body there would have to be some evidence that either the two boards jointly elected or appointed or recognize the group as a distinct committee or other body with specific purposes assigned by the two boards.

Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, said the open meetings law is intentionally broad and likened the breakfast meetings to an advisory committee.

“I mean they can call it whatever they want,” Jones said. “If its purpose is for the elected officials to get together and talk about public policy and take that back to their respective boards, then I think they’re going to fall under that definition of a public body that’s subject to open meetings law. … If its primary purpose is for dealing with joint issues between the two boards then that … sounds an awful lot like an advisory committee.”

Even with rotating members, Jones said it sounds like a one-off ad hoc committee. 

Dawson said, during an Oct. 21 in-person interview, the public is going to hear whatever is important when it is discussed at public meetings.

“It’s just like what kind of pancakes do you want, chocolate chip or regular?” Dawson said. “Would you rather have French toast or a biscuit? I mean they’re just sociable meetings to talk about what’s going on.”

She said they had discussed putting the bond referendum on the November 2014 ballot, but those are not official actions.

“Until an official action of the board is taken then it’s really, it shouldn’t even be in the paper,” Dawson said.

Shortly before press time, a public information request revealed meeting notes from three breakfast meetings.

Background:

The school board held Jan. 23 and July 24 retreats to discuss the bond referendum. Wrightsville Beach School remains No. 14 on the list of 25 priorities.

A $160 million and $150 million figure has been thrown out during school board meetings. The total amount of the 25 items estimated in 2013 dollars totals more than $242 million.

During the joint meeting on Oct. 16, agenda discussion items included talking about the priority list, bond referendum amount and bond referendum timeline, but no consensus on any of the items was reached.

Since January, White said typically one or two commissioners and two or three school board members attend the meetings about every other month.

“The reinitiation of the meetings was because we all shared a desire to sit down more frequently and just talk about the issues that pertain to public education and how we can work together to make it better,” White said. “… It was important to us, to me particularly and the county manager, that we reinitiate the meeting with the school system, particularly in light of an upcoming bond issue and their needs that they have and the school that we need to build in Porters Neck and so forth."

email kelly@luminanews.com


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