NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Broadway legend Liza Minnelli is slated to headline the inaugural season for Cape Fear Community College's $41 million taxpayer-funded Humanities and Fine Arts Center.
In an ongoing effort to track how public agencies are spending your tax dollars, we sent a public records requests to CFCC asking for the contracts for all the upcoming performances.
Tickets for the Minnelli performance went on sale Monday afternoon. We followed up on our request for how much money the Oscar-winning actress and performer would be receiving from CFCC, but the Director of the Fine Arts Center Shane Fernando said he could not discuss that information.
"In terms of her cost, we are unable to release those details, because it's a confidential agreement between her and her agency and at this point we are not allowed to talk about it," Fernando said.
We followed up with the college, again, asking for information about the contract and the gala. CFCC spokesman David Hardin said the contract between CFCC and Minnelli wasn't yet finalized, and even when it was they would not release it to the public.
"The performer's agency considers their negotiations, terms, and fees confidential and consider the agreement that is currently in place to be null and void if disclosed. The gala is a self-supported event funded through tickets sales and sponsorships – not state funds. The contract will be between CFCC and the performer's agency," Hardin explained.
The college has yet to point out a specific North Carolina law that allows them to withhold the information.
Frayda Bluestein, associate dean of the UNC School of Government, says the only exception that might apply in this case would be a trade secret exemption, but even in that case the public should know how much money was paid.
"Under our public records law, any record made or received in the transaction of public business is subject to public access unless an exception applies," Bluestein said. "Most financial records of public bodies are public, and in this case, even if the fee options or negotiations might be protected as part of their business strategy, I don't know of any basis for withholding the amount that public agency actually pays."
Jonathan Jones, the executive director of the NC Open Government Coalition, says it's clear this is a public record and the performer not wanting it released is not a legal justification for withholding it.
"Communications about the event and records related to putting it together are also public records, even if all costs are going to be covered by ticket sales. There are no special exemptions for celebrity contracts," Jones explained.
CFCC Trustee Woody White has also asked for more information on the way contracts at the Fine Arts Center are negotiated. In an email to the Board of Trustees, White asked that trustees be briefed on guaranteed ticket sales, how payments are made, and if financial models project a profit.
The finance committee is set to meet on Thursday.
We sent a similar request to UNCW for a copy of the contracts for its performers. They have turned over two contracts and said they will provide the rest once they are finalized.