The apparent attempt by Appalachian State University officials to control the flow of information during a meeting of Appalachian State’s Board of Trustees on Dec. 13 is a grave concern to be shared not only among media outlets, but every taxpayer in North Carolina whose funding of public institutions guarantees them a right to a transparent and open government.
Within North Carolina open meetings law, General Statute §143-318.10 stipulates that official meetings of public bodies shall be open to the public. An exception to this is the limited provision for public bodies to meet in closed session to discuss certain matters such as those relating to personnel.
Yet, that same law indicates that final actions taken by a public body must be made in a reconvened session that is open to the public, specifically stating 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.”
This includes naming in open session an individual who is appointed or discharged. To do otherwise, such as to say in open meeting something to the effect of “all those who agree with appointing the person we just spoke about in closed session vote aye,” is not allowed. According to a media attorney, the term for such an action is “voting by reference” and is illegal under open meetings law.
We at the Watauga Democrat have no doubt that ASU’s official bodies are well-versed in open meetings law. But just to be sure, prior to the 9 a.m. Dec. 13 emergency meeting which was convened to hire the university’s new head football coach, the Watauga Democrat sent an email to university Chief of Communications Officer Megan Hayes. The substance of that email was to remind the board that the name of any new hire must be voiced during the open session vote on the appointment.
Hayes confirmed that the email was forwarded to and received by Appalachian State general counsel Paul Meggett.
Meggett was present at the Dec. 13 meeting.
At that meeting, the board of trustees did indeed vote by reference in appointing an unnamed individual, who would turn out to be Eliah Drinkwitz, as the university’s new head football coach.
When questioned about this action following the meeting, the university response rang hollow.
“Omitting Drinkwitz’s name from the open session vote was an unintentional oversight,” Hayes and Meggett wrote in an emailed response.
It is disturbing that a public body such as Appalachian State University, tasked with the dissemination of information as its core mission, should so apparently flout the laws which are designed to protect the freedoms under which it operates.
We indeed hope that this incident is not an indication of a systemic problem with the release of public information by the university.
More, we advise that university officials recall their raison d’être — education — and learn that a public’s right to know does not arise from an institution’s apparent desire to control a narrative, but the laws upon which the foundation of that institution is built.