According to the North Carolina Open Meetings Law, public bodies in the state can go into closed session to discuss a personnel issue and they can also go behind closed doors to discuss a potential incentives deal for a company that’s considering relocating to that town, city or county.
Public bodies, such as the Guilford County Board of Commissioners can also go behind closed doors to consult with their attorney or do things like discuss a city or county’s anti-terrorism plans.
However, on Thursday, May 8, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners went into a closed session and then came out and voted to spend up to $225,000 on a playground for the new Guilford County Behavioral Health Center campus that’s now under construction.
There is, of course, no “Playground Exception” to the state’s open meetings law – which require all discussion of county business not covered by an exception to be held in public. So, on the face of it, playground construction looked like a very strange topic for a closed session.
However, Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Skip Alston and Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne both said the day after the meeting that the particulars of the playground construction discussion allowed the board to legally talk about it in private.
Alston said that, at first, when he saw the item on the agenda, he wondered whether the discussion could be held in closed session.
“I had that question too,” Alston said when asked about the very unusual topic for a closed session.
Alston said that, while he couldn’t discuss the particulars of the talks, there were legal issues that justified going into the back room. He said the reason stated on the agenda that night was applicable: “Hold closed session pursuant to [NC General Statutes] for the purpose of consulting with the county attorney.”
Alston said that, after hearing the details of the reasoning, he was convinced the discussion qualified.
The mental health campus agreement involves three main partners – Guilford County, Cone Health and Sandhills Center – and county officials have spent a great deal of time over the last two years banging out the tough legal details of that very complex deal.
Payne wrote in an email to the Rhino Times that, though he’s not at liberty to reveal the specific nature of the conversation, the legal content did qualify the discussion for a closed session.
“I cannot say what was discussed, but it was legal issues surrounding the matter, not the policy decision to build it or not,” Payne wrote.
“Without revealing what was actually discussed,” Payne added, “a legal discussion for consultation with the attorney such as, by way of example could include: what are our contractual obligations to build it; legal authority to grant funds for the benefit of a third party; liability for construction; liability for constructing where operated by another entity and existing or potential contract terms to accomplish goal.”