UNC board gives lawmakers information from closed meeting

From left, UNC System president Tom Ross and UNC Board of Governors Vice Chair Louis Bissette, Jr. quietly confer during aUNC Board of Governors meeting in Chapel Hill Friday, November 13, 2015.
From left, UNC System president Tom Ross and UNC Board of Governors Vice Chair Louis Bissette, Jr. quietly confer during aUNC Board of Governors meeting in Chapel Hill Friday, November 13, 2015.

A member of the UNC Board of Governors said Friday that lawmakers’ demands for board records represented a dangerous intrusion into the university after an attempt by one legislator to influence the choice of the UNC system president.

The board voted unanimously to send legislative leaders all records from a closed session on Oct. 30, when the board privately approved raises for 12 of 17 university chancellors. The raises were controversial and sizable, ranging from 8 percent to 19 percent.

Despite Friday’s unanimous vote to hand over the records, there was wide disagreement among board members as to whether such legislative involvement is proper.

“One of the legislators gave our chairman instructions as to who the next president should be,” said Joe Knott of Raleigh, the board member, referring to former Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque. “This, of course, is extremely beyond the pale. The legislature should not be involved directly in the running of the university.”

After the meeting, Knott refused to identify the legislator or the preferred candidate. But he did say that Fennebresque refused to grant special favor to that candidate. Last month, the board elected Margaret Spellings, former U.S. education secretary, as the next UNC system president.

Knott said the records request was a similar example of legislative meddling. “I’m just trying to state a warning that the Board of Governors be very careful to preserve our governance of the university and not to allow the legislature or any other political group to usurp our role as protectors of this great institution,” Knott said.

Other members disagreed sharply, saying it was entirely appropriate for the legislature to seek information about the board’s actions.

Marty Kotis, a member from Greensboro, called Knott’s comment “rumor-mongering.”

Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington board member and former legislator, said he had experienced “zero direction” from lawmakers since he’d been on the board.

“Nobody told me who to vote for, who I should vote for,” Goolsby said. “I got no direction whatsoever or commands from anyone.”

Then, he added, “I applaud and appreciate legislative involvement and concern about what we do.”

Board member David Powers of Winston-Salem said neither the legislature nor the board should micromanage the university system. But he pointed out: “We have no authority as a board, except that which is granted to us by the legislature and by the people through their elected officials.”

The records, including a tape of the closed-door discussions, were to be sent to lawmakers but not released to the public Friday. Some members worried that the board’s confidential personnel discussions would be jeopardized with transmission to the legislature.

Media representatives have objected to the Oct. 30 closed-session vote and the three-day delay before the chancellors’ salary figures were disclosed. Lawyers for media organizations have said the private vote ran afoul of the state’s Open Meetings Law. The law generally allows public bodies to discuss personnel matters behind closed doors but requires votes in open session.

The board agreed Friday to provide the public a summary of how board members voted on the raises. That should be released Monday, said Lou Bissette, vice chairman.

In hindsight, Bissette said, he would have preferred to hold the final vote in public. He said the board would have a presentation on the Open Meetings Law at its December meeting.

The issue will also be on the agenda next week at a Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations. Legislative leaders summoned the board to answer questions about its compliance with state law on open meetings.

Votes should be in public, Knott said, but releasing information about the board’s deliberations could chill free and open discussion in the future. “From now on, we have to be worried about that, I’m afraid,” he said.

The board need not be concerned about lawmakers hearing the debate, board member Powers said. “I thought it was extremely robust, civil, well-reasoned, a well-thought-out debate on both sides – as a very close vote that came through showed. I think it’s a great example of this board doing what it’s supposed to do.”

Kotis said he didn’t see the legislature’s demand as an overreach.

“Frankly, the public and everyone else should have access to our decisions,” Kotis said. “This is the people’s university. The people of the state own this university, not the Board of Governors. If we’re making decisions and spending their money, it’s their right to see what we’re doing. Legislators are just responding to the public’s concerns out there that we’re taking actions and doling out a lot of raises without a lot of discussion and transparency.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill