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North Carolina Media Won’t Sue UNC

North Carolina Media Won’t Sue UNC
Over Open Meetings Law Violations

North Carolina’s media outlets have decided against suing the University of North Carolina for failing to alert the public before conducting closed-door meetings during its search for a new system president, a violation of the state’s open meetings law.

In a letter to Brad Wilson, chairman of the university system’s board of governors, the North Carolina Press Association says its members and state broadcasters were “deeply troubled by the university’s arrogant refusal to publicly acknowledge the rather obvious violations to the North Carolina Open Meetings Law.”

After receiving complaints from the press association, The Associated Press, The News & Observer of Raleigh, The Charlotte Observer and the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, state attorney general Roy Cooper reminded state officials that public notice is required for official government meetings, including closed-door sessions.

“Despite this open-and-shut case, we don’t think the public gains much from litigating this matter,” NCPA President Rip Woodin wrote to Wilson. “So, we will not pursue a lawsuit.”

The board of governors chose Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff and two-time Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, as president of the system in late September, a few days after the search committee held private, unannounced meetings.

System attorney Leslie Winner says she relied on old advice from a state lawyer that it was not necessary to provide public notice of the meetings because it was the continuation of a meeting held earlier in the month.

According to Woodin, it was clear that the search committee had violated the law.

“There’s no doubt in my mind and certainly, there was no doubt in Roy Cooper’s mind,” he says.

Bowles has officially taken over the reins for the university system, bringing what Woodin says is a “philosophy that open government is good government.” After a meeting, Woodin said Bowles had “pledged to obey the letter and the spirit of our state’s sunshine laws.”

Bowles has also agreed to back off UNC support for a state Senate bill opposed by the press association that would have added several exemptions to the state’s Public Records Law. The Senate approved a stripped-down version that would have barred the public release of personal information of donors to public agencies and the publication of state employees’ home and personal cell phone numbers.

The bill could have been considered again when the Legislature reconvenes in May. The withdrawal is “a demonstration of Bowles’ commitment to conduct the university’s business in a transparent nature,” Woodin says.

The bill sponsor, Sen. Daniel G. Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, says he filed the bill last year in part as a gesture to UNC and local governments who sought the changes.

He says he saw the measure as a way to examine public records issues closely, such as how to protect the preliminary work of university researchers from being pirated by outside groups. According to Clodfelter, UNC’s apparent withdrawal from the process will make the issue difficult to resolve in 2006.

“If they don’t want to work on the problem, then it will be hard to fix it,” he says.

Associated Press

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