Student newspaper says secret negotiations leading to 'Silent Sam' deal broke NC law

Posted January 8, 2020 11:07 a.m. EST
Updated January 8, 2020 2:13 p.m. EST

Silent Sam

— The University of North Carolina Board of Governors violated the state's open meetings laws by secretly negotiating and approving a deal to dispose of a controversial Confederate monument from the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

DTH Media Corp., which publishes The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper on the Chapel Hill campus, wants a court to void two agreements between the Board of Governors and the state chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour said last month that he is rethinking his approval of the deal, questioning whether the SCV had the legal right to enter into the agreements. No date has been set for the hearing he wants to hold on the matter.

Under an agreement Baddour approved on Nov. 27, the SCV agreed to take ownership of the "Silent Sam" statue, which stood for more than a century on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus before protesters toppled it in August 2018, and build a center to preserve it. The university agreed to put $2.5 million into a trust to help defray the costs of the new center.

Separately, UNC-Chapel Hill paid the SCV nearly $75,000 so it wouldn't display Confederate flags or similar banners on any UNC system campus during any meetings or demonstrations for five years.

According to documents released by UNC officials, the SCV first contacted the Board of Governors about Silent Sam last February, but the documents don't include any correspondence between the two groups from that point until late November.

The deal with the SCV was approved behind closed doors by the Board of Governors' Committee on University Governance, which met via conference call the day before Thanksgiving without any notice as to the purpose of the meeting.

Twenty-two of the 24 board members were on the conference call, and at least one person on the eight-member committee opposed the deal. The minutes of the closed session show that Thom Goolsby, a former state senator who had criticized the protesters who pulled the statue down and demanded that it be put back on campus, voted against the settlement. Another committee member, Tom Fetzer, a former Raleigh mayor and North Carolina Republican Party director, was noted in the minutes as not being on the call when the vote was taken.

When the committee returned to open session, it adjourned without any public acknowledgement of the settlement, other than a statement that a news release would be issued later in the day.

"The manner in which the meeting was noticed and conducted effectively prevented any member of the public, including those who may have attended the meeting, from understanding its purpose or outcome, much less raising questions or objections," the DTH lawsuit states.

About 45 minutes after the board adjourned, the SCV filed a lawsuit against UNC over "Silent Sam," and Baddour had approved a consent agreement between the two sides within five minutes.

"The contents of the [SCV lawsuit and consent agreement] and the timing of their respective filings indicate that they were negotiated and drafted well in advance of their approval," the DTH lawsuit states

The lawsuit notes that no records of any meeting by the Board of Governors members who negotiated the deal have been produced, even though meeting notices and minutes are required of the group as a public body under state law.

The deal has been denounced by students and faculty as paying money to support white nationalism, and UNC-Chapel Hill lost a $1.5 million research grant because of it.

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