House Bill 870 — Record Closed Sessions of Public Bodies — requires that public bodies meeting in closed session keep a complete and accurate record their proceedings. The legislation was introduced by Representative Jimmy Dixon and it passed the House on Thursday, May 9.
Public bodies — such as city councils, county boards and school boards — are required to hold open meetings for attendance and observation by the general public, but are permitted to hold closed meetings for certain purposes as specified by state law (G.S. 143-318.11), such as to maintain attorney-client confidentiality.
Currently, state open meetings laws require that the public body prepare written minutes of the closed session and a general accounting of the closed session. Unless the public body takes action in the closed session, the minutes can be recorded in summary form, but the law requires that the general account be detailed enough so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired.
House Bill 870 amends the current law to require that all closed sessions be recorded by either an audiovisual method or by audio alone. The bill exempts meetings held to discuss certain personnel matters. These recordings must also be retained for two years from the time they are released to the public.
The law permits both the minutes and the general account of a closed session to be sealed for as long as is necessary to avoid “frustrating the purpose of the closed session.” Many public bodies initially seal all minutes and general accounts of closed sessions and then delegate to their attorney or other staff the responsibility for periodically reviewing these documents and opening them to public access when appropriate.
Public bodies who are currently able to record regular meetings with audio-visual or audio-only means would be required to record closed meetings beginning on October 1, 2013. Public bodies who are not currently recording regular meetings in this way would be given an 8-month grace period, but must begin recording closed meetings by July 1, 2014.
According to the North Carolina School of Government, the most important reasons for local government to hold a closed meeting are as follows:
Confidential Records. A public body may have a closed session to discuss information that is part of a record that is confidential or otherwise not available to the public. Thus, for example, a board of social services may have a closed session to discuss matters involving recipients of public assistance, because records about recipients are closed to public access. There is also authority for a closed session to approve the minutes of an earlier closed session, inasmuch as a public body may deny public access to such minutes.
Attorney Consultations. A public body may meet in closed session with its attorney to discuss matters that are within the attorney-client privilege—that is, legal subjects. While in the closed session, the public body may give instructions to the attorney about handling or settling claims, litigation, or other proceedings.
Economic Development. A public body may have a closed session to discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of businesses in the area served by the public body. This is the authority under which a public body may in closed session develop an incentives package to attract a new business or encourage an existing business to expand.
Real Estate. A public body may hold a closed session to develop its negotiating position in the purchase of real property, and it may, while in closed session, give instructions to its bargaining agent in that transaction. Note that there is not similar authority for a closed session if the public body is selling real property.
Employment Contracts. A public body may hold a closed session to develop its bargaining position in the negotiating of an employment contract, and it may, while in closed session, give instructions to its bargaining agent in that transaction.
Public Employees. A public body may hold a closed session to consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, and conditions of appointment or employment of a public employee or public officer. (A public body may not use this provision to discuss the qualifications, competence, etc. of a member of the public body itself or of members of other public bodies.) In addition, a public body may hold a closed session to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against a public officer or employee.
Criminal Investigations. A public body may hold a closed session to plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning an investigation of alleged criminal conduct.
North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law was originally enacted in 1971. More information on the law can be found at North Carolina Open Meetings Law.