Friday, July 29, 2011

CMS board illegally gathered? Well...

A citizen called foul at this week's meeting of the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, a weekly gathering to discuss as it notes "issues of importance to the African American community in particular and the rest of Charlotte in general." The forum brings together an eclectic group of people, across economic lines and race. Political leaders are often in attendance.

So it wasn't surprising to find some Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members there this week, especially since the speaker was interim CMS Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh. Hattabaugh and school board chair Eric Davis fielded questions from the audience.

One of those questions was preceded by a statement that the gathering was an illegal school board meeting because five of the nine school board members were present. Sure enough, scattered in the audience were school board members Kaye McGarry, Tom Tate, Richard McElrath and Joyce Waddell. Along with Davis, that made a majority. But was it an illegal gathering?

We asked a lawyer, who said, well, technically, maybe. Why the squirrellyness? Well, the N.C. open meetings law doesn't pin it down as much as some observers would like.

The law, under Article 33C, does note that meetings of public officials where the "people's business" is being conducted must be open to the public (except under certain conditions where closed sessions are permitted) and that notice should be given of those meetings. And it does say that an "official" meeting is where a majority of the members are gathered.

But they must be gathered for "the purpose of conducting hearings, participating in deliberations, or voting upon or otherwise transacting the public business... of the public body."

It's clear the members weren't doing most of that but some could make a case maybe that there was some transaction of public business, given that school issues were being discussed. And it doesn't matter that not all of the members there participated in the discussion, the lawyer said.

Still, the law also says that "a social meeting or other informal assembly (if they all showed up at the symphony or party for instance) or gathering together of the members does not constitute an official meeting unless called or held to evade the spirit and purposes of this Article."

It didn't appear as if the school board members were trying to evade the law, the lawyer said. But if they were, at least one citizen wasn't about to let it go unnoticed.

Want to see a clip of Hattabaugh's talk at the Breakfast Forum? Go to