Expert: Oak Island in violation of Open Meetings Law

Expert: Oak Island in violation of Open Meetings Law
The future of the par 3 golf course is on the agenda for town council Tuesday. (Source: WECT)

OAK ISLAND, NC (WECT) - An open government expert says the Town of Oak Island has violated the law by failing to disclose proper minutes from closed-session meetings.

WECT requested the minutes to learn more about the abrupt firing of Oak Island Town Manager Tim Holloman in March 2016. His termination came in the wake of an embarrassing incident at the firehouse where an allegedly intoxicated volunteer firefighter fell down the fire pole and seriously injured himself.

Holloman says a town council member was aware of the incident right after it happened, and assured Holloman that a formal investigation was not needed. When more details about the accident came to light months later, Holloman decided a closer look was, indeed, warranted.

He ultimately brought the incident to the attention of the entire town council, recommending disciplinary actions for specific fire station employees.

"Once advising council of this within two weeks, I was terminated. To my knowledge, the employees involved are still working for the town and never received any disciplinary action or termination," Holloman told WECT in August.

The issue resurfaced in the news when Oak Island Town Council adopted a new rule prohibiting anyone except on-duty firefighters from using the fire pole, and only for emergency and training purposes.

The new developments with town policy and Holloman publicly speaking out for the first time about his termination prompted WECT to formally request Oak Island's closed-session minutes from November 2015, just after the firehouse incident, and from March 2016, the month Holloman was fired.

Oak Island regularly releases detailed minutes for their open-session meetings but does not typically publish closed-session minutes. They also publish video recordings of their open-session meetings on YouTube but say they do not record closed-session meetings. The law requires that every public body keep full minutes of closed-session meetings.

After a formal vote by town council approving the release of the closed-session minutes in question, Assistant Town Manager Lisa Stites emailed them to us Sept. 20.

There were records from 18 closed-session minutes the town held between January 2015 and December 2016. But for each meeting, some of which lasted hours, the minutes were only a half page long. They explained who was present, and what time the meeting began and ended, but the vast majority only state the general topic of discussion and not the details of what was discussed.

In the closed session minutes for March 10, 2015, the only details provided regarding the substance of the meeting are, "Council discussed an issue with retirement benefits for an employee."

The minutes for March 16, 2016, are some of the most detailed provided, but still quite brief regarding what transpired during the four-hour meeting: "Mr. Edes reviewed some personnel matters within a Town department. Council and the Town Manager discussed how personnel matters were handled and follow up action to be taken, employee feedback about the Town Manager's job performance, specific complaints about employees and from employees, and Council's concerns about the Town Manager's job performance."

According to the closed session minute requirements set forth by NC General Statute 143-318.11, "Such minutes…shall keep a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired."

Jonathan Jones, an attorney and the director of the NC Open Government Coalition, says the law allows sensitive personnel information to be redacted from those minutes, but still requires a full accounting be recorded and disclosed. As an example, he said that officials in Alamance County released 45 pages of heavily redacted minutes from a two-hour closed session meeting discussing the potential termination of the school superintendent.

"I think it's ludicrous to call that paragraph or two paragraphs a general account of what happened. And it certainly isn't following the instruction in the law that a person who wasn't there needs to be able to follow along with what happened," Jones said of the minutes the town released to WECT. "A claim that this meets the requirements of the law is really laughable, except it's not fun, because it means we have a government body that is not taking its responsibility seriously."

Because they are conducting public business, and because they meet somewhat routinely in closed session, WECT is continuing to push for fuller disclosure from Oak Island. In addition, former employees like Holloman are questioning the way the town is conducting its business, and a review of what the town is doing behind closed doors could provide relevant insight.

"I feel I was treated unfairly," Holloman said of the fact that he was terminated but the people involved in the firehouse incident were not. "It's hard to speculate why they would do that. Perhaps because I had the shortest time in the community. Other than that and political reasons, that's the only thing I can imagine."

We have reached out to Mayor Cin Brochure, Town Manager David Kelly, and Assistant Town Manager Lisa Stites Monday for a response to Jones' assessment that the minutes they released to us do not comply with what the law requires. We have yet to receive a response.

However, less than an hour after we published this story online, we received this response from the Town Attorney Brian Edes:

"This matter has been turned over to me as Town Attorney given the nature of the allegations contained in your September 25th, 2017 email to Assistant Town Manager / Town Clerk Lisa Stites.  I will thoroughly review your contentions and additional requests and hope to provide a formal response early next week as I have out of town commitments the remainder of this week.  In the meantime, I have advised the Town staff and elected officials to refrain from commenting on this matter until I have completed my review."

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