by Bob Geary
Advocacy groups say yes, and they've gone to court over it. Specifically, they argue that the fact that many folks were not allowed into the March 23 school board meeting — and that the board, though aware a big crowd was coming, insisted on staying in the cramped meeting room at 3600 Wake Forest Road — was in violation of the Open Meetings Law.
Citizens file "good government" lawsuit against Wake County School Board
Members of public say the board violated the state's Open Meetings Law, subverting the democratic process
RALEIGH (May 6, 2010) — By restricting access to a key public meeting, the Wake County School Board violated North Carolina's Open Meetings Law, a lawsuit filed this morning says.
A group of Wake County citizens filed suit against the school board in the Superior Court of Wake County this morning. The suit targets a March 23 meeting where the board passed a resolution on policy 6200, the district's nationally lauded diversity policy. The citizens are represented by the ACLU of North Carolina, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, NC NAACP, UNC Center for Civil Rights, NC Justice Center and multiple private lawyers.
On March 23, the Wake County School Board held a meeting resulting in a resolution opposing the diversity policy in favor of so-called "neighborhood schools." Despite the overwhelming public interest and the widespread anticipation of a very large turnout, the School Board made no effort to make it possible for everyone to attend. Many of the plaintiffs in the suit allege that they were barred from the meeting, violating state law and undermining the democratic process.
The rest of the statement:
"The school board has made it clear that they have an agenda to follow," said Woody Barlow, a plaintiff in this lawsuit and a junior at Enloe. "I feel cheated that they would skirt procedure just to have their way, and regardless of what people think of the policies of the board, everyone should feel threatened by their disregard of the democratic process."
People were barred from attending the meeting based on limited space — despite the fact that larger venues were available and news organizations had offered to pay the costs of changing locations. Moreover, the ticket policy was enforced in an unpredictable and repeatedly changing manner during the course of the day. Certain people who were lucky enough to get a ticket to get into the meeting were told that they could not leave the building or they would lose their place in line, while others were permitted to leave and come back.
"At a previous meeting, I was required to stand in the hot and crowded hallway, where I couldn't hear," said Barbara Garlock, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "I have cancer in my bones, which is very painful and so I asked for a seat due to my cancer. I was refused a seat when I needed one, although I did get a seat later when someone left the meeting. Because of the confusion, frustration and lack of seating at this previous meeting, I did not even attempt to attend the 3/23 meeting, as I knew that my illness would not be accommodated."
The lawsuit asks the court to invalidate the actions taken on March 23 based on violations of the Open Meetings Law.
"The suit does not ask for any money in compensatory damages. It is purely a good government lawsuit," said Irv Joyner, an attorney with the NC NAACP. The lawsuit names the Wake County School Board as a defendant.
The plaintiffs also ask the court to order the school board to eliminate policies and practices adopted since the March 23 meeting that have restricted public access to the board. The suit asks the court to require new, clear and consistent procedures put in place to ensure that all members of the public who want to attend meetings are allowed to do so and to effectively participate in the process.
"The school board's actions described in this complaint are clear violations of the Open Meetings Law," said Swain Wood, an attorney in Raleigh who is serving as counsel for the plaintiffs. "The board should immediately put a stop to these actions, and should make it possible for all citizens to exercise their right to attend public meetings."
"Laws like this are in place to make sure the public has the right to be there while elected officials are taking actions that affect their communities and their families," said Erin Byrd, another plaintiff in the case. "If the school board members don't have the courage to take these actions while everyone is watching, then they shouldn't be serving as public officials."