Not so open: Critics say UNC Board of Governors excludes the public from its “public” meetings

Not so open: Critics say UNC Board of Governors excludes the public from its “public” meetings

Hoping to hear some discussion of the future of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument, Lindsay Ayling and a few other UNC-Chapel Hill students attempted to attend last week’s meeting of the UNC Board of Governors.

Attempted, as it turns out, was the operative word.

Before the meeting began, while most of the seats in the board room were still empty, Ayling and two other students were told there was no room for them. All the chairs in the room – even the ones that appeared to be empty – were reserved in advance, they were told by campus police.

Not only was there no room for them, they were told, but they would have to exit the Center for School Leadership Development building and sit outside while the meeting happened.

The students were escorted past the hallways and lounges where others without seats stood without being questioned and forced to sit on a bench outside the building while two campus police officers guarded the door.

Ayling eventually got a seat in the building – but only after members of the press,including a Policy Watch reporter – questioned whether barring students from the meeting complied with North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law.

The relevant portions of that law read:

§ 143-318.9. Public policy. Whereas the public bodies that administer the legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, and advisory functions of North Carolina and its political subdivisions exist solely to conduct the people’s business, it is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly. (1979, c. 655, s. 1.)

§ 143-318.10. All official meetings of public bodies open to the public. (a) Except as provided in G.S. 143-318.11, 143-318.14A, and 143-318.18, each official meeting of a public body shall be open to the public, and any person is entitled to attend such a meeting.”

The UNC Board of Governors, as a governing body appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly, is subject to the law. But students who have attempted to attend meetings in the last two years say they are regularly turned away.

“It’s the same at every meeting we’ve attended,” said Ayling, a PhD student in UNC-Chapel Hill’s History department. “The last meeting was the only time that I’ve ever been able to come to a meeting and it was because press was raising the issue of whether it was really a public meeting if there’s no seating for the public. They will always just tell us there’s no seating available for the public. We’ve never even been allowed to stay and see if seats opened up.”

UNC Police declined to comment on their policy, saying only that they have the authority to determine who enters the building when the board is in session and under what conditions.

Jason Tyson, Director of Media Relations at UNC, provided a written statement to Policy Watch.

The UNC System has no formal policy concerning reserved seating at UNC Board of Governors meeting. Those meetings are public, and are typically held at CSLD, an office building. On occasion the board will meet at C.D. Spangler, which is also an office building. We reserve seats for chancellors, the executive officers of our affiliate organizations (NC Arboretum, UNC-TV, UNC Press), members of campus board of trustees, UNC System Office senior staff and/or committee lead staff that have a business reason for being in the room. Other reserved seats are for special guests of the meeting, such as legislators, and award recipients presenters to the board. Both of the board meetings are held in rooms that are small, and thus we must have reserved seating for the essential persons mentioned above. Thus, board meetings are often to, and over, capacity. If these seats open up during the meeting, we will seat members of the public interested in attending who do not have a business purpose for being in the room.

We provide public access by live streaming the meetings online, which anyone can watch, as well as having public comments sessions before each meeting. We also provide ample press access by reserving 15 seats for members of the media at each meeting, and have a media availability after each meeting.”

The system described by Tyson “defeats the purpose of the Open Meetings Law,” said Brooks Fuller, Director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition.

Brooks Fuller, Director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition

“It’s a tremendous violation of the spirit of the law to not make reasonable accommodation for interested members of the public at open public meetings,” Fuller said.

Saying that the room is too small to accommodate any but those the board or its staff choose is not a good excuse, Fuller said. Live streaming a meeting – as many government bodies do – does not absolve them from the responsibility of providing seats to the public, he said.

“UNC is blessed with many large facilities at which to hold meetings,” Fuller said. “That is definitely within their ability, especially during the summertime.”

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees meets in a large ballroom at the Carolina Inn, where students and alumni rarely have trouble finding seats.

The North Carolina General Assembly has public galleries from which anyone can watch their lawmakers at work. Seats are not reserved for staff or the entourages of those with business before the General Assembly, with the general public allowed only if any room is left.

Fuller said he likes to quote Jonathan Jones, his predecessor at the Open Government Coalition, on the use of small rooms as an excuse for excluding the public from meetings.

“’If your courtroom is too small to hold the people, it’s too small to hold the Constitution’,’” Fuller said.

Many local governments hold their meetings in smaller rooms, sometimes in historic buildings with too few seats for the public. They will often accommodate people by setting up “spillover” areas where the public can watch the meeting on a real-time livestream.

The UNC Board of Governors does provide such a room – a reporter for the Carolina Journal was briefly brought there during last week’s meeting when a UNC staffer sat in her reserved media seat. But it has not been provided to students, Ayling said.

“I’ve never seen that room,” Ayling said. “We’ve always been told we had to be outside the building.”

Students have come to understand that’s not by accident, Ayling said.

“It’s a feature of their system and not a bug,” she said. “It just speaks to the fact that the Board of Governors has an antagonistic relationship with students. They see them as a political enemy. They’re barring our entry into a UNC building where the governing body of the UNC system is having what is supposed to be a public meeting. And we’re UNC students.”

The way that the board holds its public comment sessions is also troubling, Ayling said. Held an hour before the full meeting and in a separate room, the sessions are only ever attended by a handful of the board members and are usually sparsely attended by the public.

At most government meetings where public comments are allowed, those sections of the meeting are held during the actual meeting and in the same location.

“Any public body has the right to set its agenda and determine what business will come before it,” Fuller said. “We want those bodies to be efficient and conduct their business. But they should also do it as openly as possible.”

“It is very frustrating to see students who really yearn to learn about the business of a public body dealing with this,” Fuller said. “We should do everything we can to incentivize participation.”

Fuller, himself a UNC alum, said he doesn’t recall as much student interest in the Board of Governors during his time on campus. But things have very obviously changed, he said.

“My memory of my time at UNC was that the Board of Governors were not taking actions that struck nerves as raw as they are now,” Fuller said. “The student body has become increasingly sensitized to the work of the Board of Governors, especially around things like Silent Sam. They are very concerned about the makeup of the board, the membership of the board and whether that reflects the university they want to see for themselves.”

That has led to confrontations and protests, as when students disrupted a 2016 meeting of the Board of Governors.

Presuming that all students who wish to attend a meeting may disturb doesn’t make sense, Fuller said. Making it more difficult for those whose institutions are governed by the board to even attend their meetings can only make things worse, he said.

“What message does it send to students who are, perhaps for the very first time in their lives, wanting to participate in their state or local government?” Fuller said. “That they are not wanted? It sends a terrible message. We’re talking about people who are in a season of their life where they are learning and yearning to get involved. And we’re telling them they have to leave when they are so few in number that we could easily find space for them.”