Chapel Hill, N.C. — One member of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors on Friday accused lawmakers of improperly meddling in the university system's operations, and others said they were "concerned" about a request to turn over records of a closed meeting.
Members of the board voted Friday to accede to a legislative demand for recordings and other material related to a closed session on Oct. 30, when members of the board voted to raise the salaries of 12 UNC system chancellors.
"The legislature should not be involved in the running of the university," said Joe Knott, a lawyer and member of the board.
Knott also accused a lawmaker, whom he didn't name, of trying to interfere in the selection of a new UNC president.
House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger demanded the material on the Oct. 30 meeting shortly after news organizations raised questions about how the vote was conducted and the delay in revealing the information. Experts in North Carolina's open meetings and open records laws say such an action should have been taken in a public session, and the results of the action should have been taken immediately, rather than three days later.
This is the latest episode in a contentious year for UNC's top leaders that began with the controversial forced resignation of President Tom Ross.
Criticism about an overly secretive process dogged the search for a new president, which eventually lea to the appointment of former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. The intense criticism prompted former Chairman John Fennebresque to resign his seat on the board, making Knott's comments during the meeting all the more noteworthy.
"One of the legislators gave our former chairman instructions as to who our next president should be," Knott said during the meeting.
After the meeting, Knott would not say how he knew this or point to any evidence, saying only that he was "satisfied it had happened."
Fennebresque could not immediately be reached by phone or email.
A spokeswoman for Berger, R-Rockingham, said that Knott was a House appointee and that senators would leave it to members of the House to comment.
"Nobody tha I'm aware of put any pressure on anybody," said Moore, R-Cleveland.
He said that he was asked his opinion about one candidate but did not offer unsolicited advice on any of those the board's search committee had vetted.
While other members of the board said they were troubled by the legislative request for closed session minutes, they did not agree with Knott about pressure from lawmakers.
"The accusation is completely false. I think it's rumor-mongering," said Marty Kotis, a member of the board from Greensboro.
Louis Bissette, an Asheville lawyer and the board's interim chairman, said that he would not comment directly on Knott's remarks but said, "I've never had any legislators pressure me about anything we're doing."
Records divulged in advance of meeting
Lawmakers have summoned members of the UNC Board of Governors and their general counsel, Thomas Shanahan, to appear before the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, a powerful panel chaired by Berger and Moore.
Bissette said the information that lawmakers are looking for, including recordings of the meeting, would be provided to lawmakers Friday afternoon.
Moore and members of legislative staff said the documents had been turned over to General Assembly's central staff to look for potential violations of open meetings laws.
"Constitutionally, the General Assembly has oversight of the UNC system," Moore said.
During Friday's hastily called meeting, members were concerned that some of the material discussed Oct. 30 was confidential and worried that lawmakers might somehow release it.
Shanahan said that the same standards of confidentiality that apply to the board of governors would still apply to the material once it was turned over to lawmakers.
Knott said he was worried that comments made during closed session could be taken out of context and that members of the board would not be able to speak as freely in the future if they knew lawmakers were looking over their shoulders.
"This sort of thing puts a chill on that kind of discussion," Knott said.
But other members said lawmakers had a right to oversee the board.
"A few people might have said some things they don't want heard outside of closed session, but that's just the way the cookie crumbles," said board member David Powers.
Members of the media, including WRAL News, have requested copies of the minutes from the Oct. 30 closed session. However, those minutes have not yet been drafted, according to board spokeswoman Joni Worthington. Worthington provided a copy of a letter transmitting material to the legislature but not the underlying recordings or reports, which she said were still deemed confidential.
However, Bissette sought and received approval from fellow board members to write and make public a summary of the Oct. 30 meeting.
"I think the public needs to get a general idea of what went on and how the decisions were made," Bissette said after the meeting, estimating that the summary would be released on Monday.