by Bob Geary
At the tumultuous March 23, 2010 meeting when the "new" Wake school board majority voted to strike diversity from Policy 6200, the student assignment policy, did the board violate the Open Meetings Act?
Yes, it did. But a three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals today ruled unanimously that, while the act was violated, there's no need for the school board to reconsider the actions it took that day. The full ruling can be read here. It upholds Superior Court Judge Bill Pittman's decision in the trial court that the school board done the public wrong by messing with people's rights to be in attendance at a public meeting ... but not so wrong as to require a do-over of the meeting itself.
The Open Meetings challenge was raised by a coalition of groups and parents who argued that the board majority deliberately excluded the public from its Committee of the Whole session that day by gathering in its usual cramped conference room space even though hundreds of interested citizens were on hand to listen. The committee could've met in the board's meeting chamber down the hall.
Later the same day, the board did use the meeting chamber for its regular public session, but it limited admission by forcing folks to show up hours ahead of time to get in line for tickets. No tickets, no admission — and no leaving and coming back on the same ticket.
Both decisions, limiting attendance at the COW and issuing tickets for the public meeting, violated the public meetings law, the Appeals Court panel said.
Plaintiffs in the case included the UNC Center for Civil Rights, the NC Justice Center, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and the NC NAACP. They won on the merits but not on their argument that the violations were serious enough to merit more than the slap on the wrist that Pittman gave the school board. Still, the plaintiffs issued a statement today in victory:
“Community engagement is critical to democracy,” said Swain Wood, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “This ruling is an important stand against public officials who attempt to ignore and shut out opposing viewpoints by violating the law.”
Judges Donna Stroud, Bob Hunter and Sam Ervin IV joined in the ruling, which concludes:
Plaintiffs argue that there is a need for a declaration by the court that a violation occurred, even if no relief is granted, so that defendants will not repeat the violations in the future. We agree, but we also find that the trial court did just that. Plaintiffs may have wished for the order to be worded differently, but the determinations were made and there is no need to remand the order to the trial court to restate its findings or conclusions more artfully. In fact, we have fully considered these findings and conclusions as to the violations and we have affirmed the trial court’s conclusions of law as to two violations of the Open Meetings Law. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying additional relief.