No notice needed?

Posted January 6, 2012 3:03 p.m. EST
Updated January 6, 2012 3:07 p.m. EST

The post-midnight veto override session held early Thursday may have violated the spirit of the state's open meetings law. But it may not have violated the letter.

Under North Carolina General Statute 143-318.12, all public bodies are required to give at least 48 hours' public notice for a meeting that isn't regularly scheduled.

But the General Assembly is required to give only "reasonable public notice" — and "reasonable" isn't defined. 

"The General Assembly has essentially exempted itself from the strict meeting notice provisions of the Open Meetings Law," said NC Press Association executive director Beth Grace. "That’s how committee chairs can convene session and committee meetings at the drop of a hat - under the Rules adopted by each chamber, which can be and have been 'suspended' when convenient by both Democratic and Republican leadership."

"The General Assembly is also broadly subject to the Public Records Act, a status riddled with exceptions and a 'legislative privilege' that allows all manner of conversations among caucus members and staff potentially to be conducted secretly. We all wish it weren't the case," said Grace.  

So, in other words, the legislature can legally hold a session in the middle of the night with only 90 minutes public notice. 

NCPA's attorney John Bussian says it's "broadly allowed by each set of 'Rules' for the House and Senate. Even where the Rules talk about noticing session, the Rules have been 'suspended' to bring lawmakers back for votes and other actions, like committee meetings around a lawmaker's desk on the floor."

Bussian helped write the Open Meetings Law. "I've always been amazed at how quickly transparency proponents convene and adjourn to suit needs. But it has happened with some frequency over the years," he added. 

The "reasonable public notice" standard was passed in 1991 as House Bill 14. It had a Republican sponsor, then-state Rep. Art Pope, but was approved by a Democratic-controlled House and Senate after substantial changes were made to the original legislation. Since then, both parties have made use of its benefits.