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Carolina Public Press recently held a free training webinar to help journalists, public officials and community members understand when, according to North Carolina state laws and guidelines, government agencies and officials may close public meetings.
Led by Carolina Public Press Investigations and Open Government Editor Jon Elliston, “Behind the Door” offered opportunities for participants to:
- learn the definition of a public meeting;
- learn the lawful reasons for which public agencies and public officials may enter into a closed meeting;
- discuss best practices for local governments in both following open meetings law and being transparent about closed sessions;
- discuss strategies for challenging what appear to be violations of open meetings law;
- learn the methodology behind Carolina Public Press’s investigation into the closed sessions held by boards of commissioners in Western North Carolina, a reporting project that could be replicated by other North Carolina news organizations; and
- discuss how to obtain records of discussion items and details from closed meetings.
Elliston’s presentation for the webinar is available for download here (PDF).
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Elliston was the lead reporter for a recent month-long Carolina Public Press investigation into the frequency and causes of board of commissioners in Western North Carolina to go into closed meetings to conduct public business. The investigation revealed that, in the 17 counties where closed session numbers were made available, WNC boards of commissioners held a total of 303 closed sessions. It also found that only fragments of these back-room conversations ultimately go public, in procedures that seem arbitrary at times. For 75 percent of the closed meetings, minutes remain sealed and away from public scrutiny.
The reporting resulted in several counties adopting new disclosure policies and others releasing previously closed records. The investigation was cited in a roundup of North Carolina’s top open government stories for Sunshine Week 2015, and it was shared and/or copublished by the (Asheville) Citizen-Times and The Charlotte Observer.
Carolina Public Press’s lead investigative reporter, Elliston is also a frequent trainer for Carolina Public Press about accessing public records at the state and federal level. He has also written for The Nation, Popular Communications, U.S. News & World Report and WNC Magazine, among other publications. His reporting has garnered awards from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the Society of Professional Journalists and the North Carolina Press Association. His book-in-progress, about an integrated summer camp in Western North Carolina that was attacked by a local mob and run out of the state in July 1963, was supported by a research fellowship from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation.
For more information, please contact Carolina Public Press at 828-774-5290.