BOONE — Appalachian State’s Board of Trustees on Dec. 13 voted to hire Eliah Drinkwitz as the university’s new head football coach. But the board’s motion to approve the hire did not include the coach’s name, which N.C. Press Association attorney Amanda Martin said is a violation of open meetings law.
North Carolina open meetings law, General Statutes §143-318.10, provides that each official meeting of a public body shall be open to the public. The law makes exceptions that allows boards to meet in closed session, or “executive session,” to discuss certain matters, including G.S. §143-318.11(a)(6), “to consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee.”
However, the law further stipulates that “final action making an appointment or discharge or removal by a public body having final authority for the appointment or discharge or removal shall be taken in an open meeting.”
The university on Dec. 11 provided notice of an emergency meeting to be held via conference call at 9 a.m. on Dec. 13. The agenda indicated that the board would meet in closed session, with G.S. §143-318.11(a)(6) listed as one of the reasons.
Staff met in the Chancellor’s Office Conference Room in the B. B. Dougherty Administration Building for the meeting, and after the closed session portion, Watauga Democrat staff were invited back into the room as the board reconvened in open session. The board then moved to approve the hire of a football coach without stating the name of the employee to be hired.
“The manner of this hire violates the open meetings law,” Martin said. “The law clearly provides that final decisions to hire or fire employees must be done in open session. In addition, the open meetings law prohibits ‘voting by reference.’ That means that votes cannot be taken in a way that deprive the public from an accurate understanding of what has taken place.”
Martin referred to G.S. §143-318.13© of the open meetings law, which states that “the members of a public body shall not deliberate, vote or otherwise take action upon any matter by reference to a letter, number or other designation, or other secret device or method, with the intention of making it impossible for persons attending a meeting of the public body to understand what is being deliberated, voted or acted upon.”
Prior to the 9 a.m. meeting, in anticipation of a potential coaching hire, the Watauga Democrat sent an email to university Chief Communications Officer Megan Hayes at 7:32 a.m. that urged the board to include the name of the new hire as part of the action taken in open session. The newspaper asked that the email, which cited G.S. §143-318.11(a)(6) and G.S. §143-318.13©, be shared with the appropriate parties.
Hayes confirmed that the email was forwarded to and received by Appalachian State general counsel Paul Meggett, who was present at the Dec. 13 meeting.
The Watauga Democrat sent questions for Meggett following the Dec. 13 meeting, asking Meggett if the names of government hires should be stated as part of the action to hire them and for a response to Martin’s statement.
“Omitting Drinkwitz’s name from the open session vote was an unintentional oversight,” Hayes and Meggett said in an emailed response. “We did, however, release his name within minutes of the close of the meeting, and we also worked quickly to to have the (memorandum of understanding) signed and made publicly available once the board approved the terms.”
The response refers to a press release announcing Drinkwitz as the hire, which Hayes said was sent about 15 minutes after the board vote.
Meggett did not respond directly to the Watauga Democrat‘s request for an interview.