OAK ISLAND, NC (WECT) - The Town of Oak Island intends to keep more detailed closed-session meeting minutes after a recent WECT investigation, although the town attorney says it will need to be heavily redacted should it cover personnel issues, which are often the subject of closed-session meetings.
Town Attorney Brian Edes defended the closed-session minutes recently released to WECT after Jonathan Jones, an attorney and the director of the NC Open Government Coalition, told us it was "laughable" to claim that the minutes met the requirements set by state law.
Under state law, elected officials are allowed to discuss sensitive business such as personnel or contract negotiations behind closed doors, but they are required to keep minutes that provide "a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired."
In an attempt to learn more about the abrupt firing of the town manager last year, and an embarrassing accident at the town fire station that apparently led to his termination, WECT requested minutes from several closed session meetings in Oak Island.
In response, we received 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.
"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 from Oak Island.
Edes, the attorney for the Town of Oak Island, says the town has to balance personnel laws with Open Meetings Law. He says the vast majority of what was discussed behind closed doors must be kept confidential by law.
In fact, Edes says after he reviewed an initial draft of the closed session minutes prepared by the town clerk, he "instructed her to remove names or personal identifiers so we could preserve the confidentiality of that person in light of the pending public records request."
Jonathan Jones said the Town of Oak Island could have stayed in keeping with personnel laws and public records laws by heavily redacting the original minutes rather than editing them to produce a version it deemed fit for public viewing.
"The Town has since consulted with the North Carolina School of Government regarding this issue," Edes explained. "Although the North Carolina appellate courts have yet to clarify what constitutes a sufficient 'general account,' the Town has decided that it will err on the side of caution and include more detail in its closed session minutes going forward. Consequently, in most instances, this will have the effect of prohibiting their release in response to closed session minutes requests such as yours."
Edes said while Oak Island could have provided heavily redacted minutes rather than the very brief summary emailed to WECT, "the net effect would have been the same."
Still, because the firing of the town manager has been a topic of ongoing speculation, Edes says the town is considering providing more detail to the public.
"The Town, so as to maintain the public confidence, is considering availing itself of the provisions of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-168(7) which, in limited circumstances, authorizes the Town Manager, with concurrence of the Council, to provide a statement concerning the circumstances under which the former Town manager separated employment from the Town," Edes explained.
"Mayor (Cin) Brochure has requested that I reach out to the former Town Manager and request a release from him that would authorize Town Officials to discuss his employment with the Town as well as his ultimate termination. If the Town is able to secure such a release, Town Officials will be able to speak more freely about his termination."
Former Oak Island Town Manager Tim Holloman told WECT he was treated unfairly by the town, which terminated him for his handling of a matter where an apparently intoxicated volunteer fell down the fire pole at the firehouse, severely injuring himself.
Holloman said as he learned more about the incident, he launched a formal investigation and ultimately recommended disciplinary action for fire employees who were involved. Holloman says he was fired instead, and to the best of his knowledge, the people involved in the initial incident were never disciplined or terminated.
Town council later adopted a new rule prohibiting anyone except on-duty firefighters from using the fire pole, and only for emergency and training purposes.
"The Town of Oak Island prides itself on being transparent in the conduct of the people's business while at the same time honoring the confidentiality of personnel matters as mandated by North Carolina law," Edes concluded in a statement to WECT. "The Town may provide you with an additional response should the Town elect to provide a statement pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-168(7) or is able to secure a release from the former Town Manager, or both."