This week DTH Media, the non-profit that operates UNC-Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel student newspaper, has sued the UNC Board of Governors over the controversial Silent Sam settlement.
The suit alleges the politically appointed board, which governs the UNC System, negotiated and made decisions about the settlement for months without providing information to the public or the media — including minutes of meetings and correspondence — in violation of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law.
Attorney Hugh Stevens of the firm Stevens Martin Vaughn and Tadych, PLLC is representing DTH Media in the suit. He spoke with Policy Watch Wednesday about the importance of the suit and what his clients hope to achieve.
The suit asks that decisions made in meetings the suit claims were held in violation of the open meetings law be found null and void — including the settlement by which the UNC System would give the Silent Sam Confederate monument to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, along with $2.5 million in a non-profit trust.
Legal experts say voiding the agreement would be an uncommon outcome — but Stevens said that may be because suits over the open meetings law aren’t as common as suits over the withholding of public documents, for instance.
“In our part of the state, a great many media companies and some advocacy organizations have pursued public records cases quite avidly,” Stevens said. “But the open meetings law is really more of a law that tells people what they are supposed to do than one that provides a lot of effective remedies. I can’t speak for anyone else except to say the opportunities have not come up all that often.”
Asking that the decisions be nullified is important in a case where such important decisions were made without public knowledge or input, Stevens said.
“Under our open meetings law, that’s really the only meaningful remedy available,” Stevens said. “You can’t throw someone off the board of governors. You can’t have them fined. The remedies written in are quite limited.”
It isn’t that there aren’t open meetings law violations happening every day, Stevens said — but they’re often difficult to document and prove under the constraints of the law as written.
“There are reasons why this remedy hasn’t been put in place very often,” Stevens said. “One is that you have to act quickly. There’s a statute of limitations of 45 days from the time that you learn of the action [that broke the law]. That’s daunting and unusual. As a consequence there haven’t been very many cases where people have sued to try to get that remedy. They’ve instead said, ‘Well there’s nothing we can really do about it now…but maybe we can get an injunction, to get them to comply with the Open Meetings laws in the future.'”
With such a high profile and controversial case as the Silent Sam settlement, Stevens said, that hardly seems enough. Board members and the UNC System’s own lawyers have publicly outlined the secretive nature of the negotiations, in which even some board members were not given all the details about the negotiations or the agreements that came out of them.
The public outcry against both the secrecy and the settlement that came of it has been so large, Stevens said, that it can’t be ignored or minimized.
“This time the violations were so egregious and so numerous — if this isn’t the case in which to ask a court to do this, what is?” Stevens said.
Suits that seek to change the behavior of public bodies in the future are themselves valuable, Stevens said.
In the case of the UNC Board of Governors’ settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Stevens said, that simply isn’t enough.
“It seemed like this was an instance wherein the open meetings law has been violated so egregiously and so constantly that if you aren’t going to try to enforce it here, when will you?” Steven said.