Redacted minutes = adequate public general account of a closed meeting – N.C. Court of Appeals

Times News Publishing v. The Alamance-Burlington Board of Education.

Times News, a newspaper publisher, originally sought to compel the Board of Education to provide unredacted minutes of a series of closed-session meetings.

The meetings at issue involved the resignation of the superintendent and an agreement to pay more than $220,000 in severance and vacation pay. After a request from Times News, the Board produced 45 pages of heavily redacted minutes.

Times News sued claiming violations of the state’s Open Meetings Law and Public Records Act. The Board responded with a motion to dismiss claiming the redacted portions were confidential personnel information and information protected by attorney-client privilege. The trial court agreed with the Board and dismissed the action.

In a prior appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed that decision, holding that a trial court in an Open Meetings action must review the minutes in camera and tailor the protection based on the “contents of the minutes” and “their importance to the public.” On remand, the trial court ordered only one previously redacted paragraph disclosed.

The Public Records Act recognizes that public records are open to inspection by the public unless a specific exemption exists. There are exemptions for attorney-client privilege, and specific personnel records created by a board of education, for example.

Likewise, the Open Meetings Law permits closed meetings only in limited situations. Even where a meeting is closed, the body must keep full and accurate minutes, which are deemed public records under the Public Records Act. There is a narrow exemption to disclosure, providing “that minutes or an account of a closed session conducted in compliance with G.S. 143-318.11 may be withheld from public inspection so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session. N.C. Gen. Stat.  §143-318.10(e).

That said, the same section of the Open Meetings law requires the body to “keep full and accurate minutes of all official meetings, including closed sessions.” In a separate sentence, it requires that “When the public body meets in closed session, it shall keep a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired.”

Times News argued that it should be entitled to this general account, which should be separate from the minutes. The Court of Appeals disagreed:

we hold that where a public body has kept minutes which are sufficient to give someone not in attendance “a reasonable understanding of what transpired,” the public body has met its obligation to create a “general account.”

The Court goes on to say that language of the statute provides that the minutes or the account may be redacted if inspection would frustrate the purpose of the closed session. The Court say it reviewed the unredacted minutes under seal and concluded that they were properly redacted.

I don’t know that I agree with the conclusion that redacted minutes can adequately serve the purpose of the statute’s mandated general account. Specifically, in reviewing the redacted minutes, could a “person not in attendance” gain a “reasonable understanding of what transpired”? That, to me, would have been a relevant inquiry and it was not addressed by the Court of Appeals.