Wilmington officials discuss unknown topics behind closed doors

Wilmington officials discuss unknown topics behind closed doors

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - It took us more than six months to get them, but the City of Wilmington recently released the city council's closed session minutes from 2017.

The original minutes we were given are brief and provide few details about what was discussed by public officials behind closed doors. In some cases, we have practically no idea why they were meeting.

State law requires closed session minutes give "a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired." But the courts do allow public bodies to heavily redact the minutes before releasing them to the public to prevent the disclosure of certain sensitive information.

The original minutes the city provided to WECT seemed to fall short of what the law requires. In some cases, the minutes simply say council met to discuss information that was "privileged, confidential, or not considered a public record." When pressed for an explanation, the city provided us a new set of closed session minutes, which were slightly more informative. The city redacted sensitive information with black lines rather than deleting entire sections from the minutes.

The 2017 closed session meetings in question cover a variety of topics on issues that affect taxpayers but are frequently decided out of public view. Topics range from workers' compensation claims and settlements to lawsuits and potential lawsuits against the city to land acquisitions and how the city is handling gang activity.

Some topics discussed behind closed doors remain unclear

After reading the second set of minutes, some of the items discussed by council in closed session remain unclear. North Carolina Open Meeting Laws only allow public officials to meet in closed session under certain limited circumstances, such as discussing personnel matters, matters protected by attorney-client privilege, contract negotiations before the acquisition of real property, and to discuss and take action on matters of public safety when there is a threat of terrorist activity.

On Oct. 2, and again on Nov. 6, city council met behind closed doors with Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous. The topic of the meeting is not described in the minutes, nor are any details about the discussion.

When we asked the city for clarification on the purpose of that closed session meeting, the city attorney gave the following response:

[T]he purpose of the closed session was to discuss specific ongoing investigations involving gang members, and that information is still protected from disclosure.  The general information about the legislative items that happened to be discussed during the same conversation is not protected and that is why it was not redacted in the minutes you received.  Similarly, the purpose of meeting with Chief Evangelous on November 6th was also to discuss pending legal matters that are still protected from disclosure.

While the information discussed on gang legislation was never redacted by the city, for it to even be discussed behind closed doors is questionable.

"It's inappropriate to drift off of whatever the reason for the closed session was. It does happen," Jonathan Jones, director of the NC Open Government Coalition, told WECT. "It shouldn't and when it does happen, the body should take every step it can to correct it and not do it again in the future."

Going into closed session for one reason, and then discussing another topic that is not protected by closed session law is something Jones says public bodies must guard against because it creates a slippery slope.

"Use one justifiable reason to go into closed session, and then once it's into closed session open the door to all these other things that are required to be discussed into the open," said Jones. "The practical reality is you get a bunch of people together and you start having a conversation, it's easy for the conversation to drift into a place that it shouldn't be and so sometimes that is going to happen. What it takes for a body like this is an awful lot of discipline. The members need to understand what they can and can't talk about, and they need guidance from the staff who is there in the room with them who understands the law. And who can say, 'Hey, wait a minute. We've drifted off topic. We should save this topic for open session.'"

Besides general concerns about doing the public's business out of the public eye, Jones says public officials risk having their decisions reversed by a judge if it is later discovered they discussed a matter in closed session that they shouldn't have.

Lawsuits, claims and settlements

On January 3, 2017, the City authorized a $130,000 worker's compensation settlement to solid waste worker William Lohan. The closed session meeting minutes say "A lengthy question/answer and discussion period was held" but the minutes do not reflect further details about what they discussed. We have asked the City for details about the nature of the claim, but they told us they are protected by personnel laws.

Later in the year, the city also discussed a proposed worker compensation claims and/or settlements with Arnfelth Benson and Police Officer J.D. Smith. On December 4th, the city accepted a settlement agreement for a workers compensation claim, but who they settled with or how much they settled for are not noted in the minutes given to WECT.

The second set of minutes released to WECT list additional legal cases that had been deleted from the first minutes we were given. The October 2nd minutes list a civil service case with Kenneth Becker, Denise Fowler vs. the City of Wilmington, and Curtis Stansbury vs. the City of Wilmington. All other details of what were discussed are blacked out.

Becker was a Wilmington Police officer who made headlines after erroneously telling an Uber driver it was against the law to take video of a February 2017 traffic stop. After the video went viral, the officer was demoted. Becker took his case before the Civil Service Commission, was eventually reinstated as a sergeant in January of 2018, and left the department the next day.

Curtis Stansbury is also a Wilmington Police officer who made headlines when he was fired in 2015 after 25 years on the force. Stansbury said he was terminated in part because of his willingness to speak to the media. He was reinstated in 2016 as a corporal, which was a demotion from his previous rank. Stansbury filed suit against the City of Wilmington in August of 2017.

It was not immediately clear who Denise Fowler is or why she is suing the City of Wilmington.

Council had multiple closed session discussions in 2017 about a lawsuit filed by Johnny Small. Small spent 28 years in prison for a 1988 murder, but his conviction was overturned in 2016. A key witness in the case recanted his testimony, and claims that a Wilmington Police Detective threatened him with the death penalty if he didn't falsely testify against Small. When we previously reported on the story, Small's attorney indicated it could take until at least 2019 before his case against the City of Wilmington went to court.

In June, council discussed a lawsuit with Brixmor, a commercial property owner at New Center Drive and Market Street involving the condemnation of land for a collector street plan. In other legal action, the City also received a $143,000 settlement from online travel companies like Orbitz and Hotels.com for delinquent taxes.

There are other vague references to litigation and potential litigation throughout the 2017 closed session minutes, but whether they are related to the lawsuits mention above, or involve other, unnamed parties is unclear.

Real estate deals

The City also discussed the acquisition of property including a proposed soccer complex and land within Echo Farms. On January 17th, Council discussed the purchase of 1020 N. Front Street. The city later paid  $2 million for that property. It is unclear to WECT what the intended purpose is for that land.

We requested last year's closed session minutes as part of a broad request for minutes from many public bodies for a statewide Sunshine Week story in partnership with other media outlets that was published months ago. The City of Wilmington minutes were not provided in time to be included in the initial story.

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