Chapel Hill News

UNC board gets tutorial on open meetings law

Thomas Shanahan, Sr. Vice President and General Counsel to the UNC Board of Governors, left, Dr. Joan Perry, Secretary of the UNC Board of Governors, center, and W. Louis Bissette, Vice Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, before they speak to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations meeting at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, NC on Nov. 18, 2015.
Thomas Shanahan, Sr. Vice President and General Counsel to the UNC Board of Governors, left, Dr. Joan Perry, Secretary of the UNC Board of Governors, center, and W. Louis Bissette, Vice Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, before they speak to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations meeting at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, NC on Nov. 18, 2015. cseward@newsobserver.com

After criticism of a closed-door vote in October, the UNC Board of Governors got an expert opinion on the state’s open-meetings law Thursday from the UNC School of Government.

The board vice chairman, Louis Bissette, acting as chairman in the wake of former Chairman John Fennebresque’s resignation, said that if a policy change is appropriate, the board will take action at a future meeting.

Bissette requested Thursday’s special tutorial following concerns from lawmakers about a controversial Oct. 30 closed-door session in which the board acted to give 12 chancellors substantial raises. Details about the raises were not released for three days.

In an unusual move, legislative leaders demanded records from the closed session, including a recording of the proceedings.

The board meeting continues Friday, when a group of faculty, students and others plan to protest the hiring of incoming UNC system President Margaret Spellings. Her critics point to a record of privatization of education – Spellings has served on the board of the parent company of for-profit Phoenix University – and remarks they say show intolerance toward gay people.

Spellings, who served as education secretary under President George W. Bush, is replacing Tom Ross, a Democrat who was pushed out.

Michael Smith, dean of the School of Government, opened Thursday’s open-meetings presentation by saying that new members of public boards, while often very successful in the business world, may have no experience in the public sector.

“The rules are different,” Smith said, “and the rules are not necessarily obvious, and the rules are not necessarily intuitive.”

Professors Frayda Bluestein and Robert Joyce stressed that all meetings by public boards are to be held in public unless the subject matter meets the criteria set out in the open meetings law, such as personnel matters.

Similarly, all records are public unless they fall under exceptions set out by law. Minutes from closed meetings may be held as long as necessary to avoid frustrating the purpose of the closed session.

“The presumption is openness,” Joyce said.

Problems can arise, Bluestein said, when there is conflict between the open meetings law and other laws.

In the case of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, for example, a federal law that protects students’ records, the federal law trumps the state law, Joyce said, and the UNC system would be putting its federal funding at risk to ignore FERPA.

Although personnel discussions must be held in closed session, a body that has the final authority to hire and fire must take its final vote on new hires in an open session.

Media members have argued that the final vote on the chancellors’ raises should have been conducted in public. The closed-door meeting lasted for more than two hours, and later board members admitted the discussion was contentious. The vote was split, 16-13 in favor of the raises, but no roll call was taken.

Joyce gave the board two options for working within the law in negotiating salaries.

One is to vote in closed session on a salary range and have administrators discuss the details with the employee. Then a final vote can be taken in open session.

The other is to vote on a range and delegate to administration the authority to set the final salary. That way the board never takes a binding vote.

Media members have argued that the final vote on the chancellors’ raises should have been conducted in public. The closed-door meeting lasted for more than two hours, and later board members admitted the discussion was contentious. The vote was split, 16-13 in favor of the raises, but no roll call was taken.

Last month, Bissette was summoned to the powerful Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations to answer questions about the closed meeting. He acknowledged that the board should have immediately made public the information about the raises, which ranged from 8 percent to 19 percent. The delay was meant to give UNC system President Tom Ross time to notify chancellors of their raises, he said. But Bissette pledged that the board would lean toward openness in the future.

The raises followed the board’s action in April to increase the salary ranges for chancellors after a consultant concluded they were too low. The pay bumps were a “one-time attempt” to bring salaries in line with peer institutions around the country, supporters argued.

The chancellors’ raises have drawn objection from faculty and others.

Among the beneficiaries of the pay hikes were chancellors in the Triangle. UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt received a raise of 9.6 percent – or $50,000 – bringing her base pay to $570,000. N.C. Central University Chancellor Debra Saunders-White got a $45,000 boost – almost 16 percent – bringing her annual pay to $330,000. Randy Woodson, chancellor of N.C. State University, received a 13 percent salary increase – or $70,000 – which will bring his base pay to $590,000. Woodson is the only chancellor with a contract. His four-year deal includes an annual stipend of $200,000 paid by private funds at NCSU, plus the possibility of performance bonuses.

Spellings, who will start the job in March, will have a base salary of $775,000, or $175,000 more than Ross’ salary. She will also be able to earn deferred compensation and annual bonuses.

Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed to this story.

Goad: mattgoad@gmail.com

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