Watauga elections board scrubs meeting minutes

Posted August 22, 2013 5:37 p.m. EDT
Updated August 22, 2013 6:42 p.m. EDT

— Parts of the minutes of a recent meeting of the Watauga County Board of Elections have been deleted at the request of the chairman, a move that a media attorney says invites legal challenges.

On Aug. 12, the two newly appointed Republican members of the board made big changes to Watauga County's voting plans with no advance notice.

Over the objections of Kathleen Campbell, the lone Democratic board member, they voted to remove the early voting site on the Appalachian State University campus – about 5,000 voters used that site in 2012 – and consolidate the school's Election Day precinct into a so-called "super precinct" of 9,000 voters, which is far larger than state law allows.

Luke Eggers, the new chairman of the elections board, said the changes would streamline voting and save money. County elections director Jane Ann Hodges disputed Eggers' claims.

Closing polling locations at college campuses has become an issue in several cities after changes in voter laws approved by state lawmakers this year.

Bill Aceto, the second Republican member of the Watauga County elections board, said there were logistical problems with the ASU precinct, adding that about half of the student body who cast votes already use the consolidated precinct site.

Eggers was also warned during the meeting that he had violated his oath by consulting with Watauga County Republican Party Chairwoman Anne Marie Yates about the voting plan because her brother is running for office.

The details of the meeting were included in draft minutes, but the three-member board approved a third version of the minutes on Tuesday, scrubbing the details. The approved minutes say merely that precinct locations were discussed and include no mention of Yates.

"In what ways have you two not violated the open meetings law?" Campbell asked before the revised minutes were approved. "You boys should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Eggers said the minutes should include only proposals and votes and not the details of the discussion.

"The minutes are to reflect what the board did – the business of the board – in a concise manner, and I feel like the minutes that were written do exactly that," he said.

Raleigh attorney Mike Tadych, who often represents the media in open government cases, said Thursday that public bodies are required by law to keep full and accurate minutes of their meetings, not simply a synopsis.

"The notion of 'the board had a discussion' doesn't give anybody any idea what transpired, and certainly, somebody reading the approved minutes that are greatly reduced wouldn't have an understanding that there was any real contentiousness or disagreement about what ended up taking place at this meeting," Tadych said. "To say, based on what is out there, that these are full and accurate, I don't think passes the giggle test. It should be what happened."

The board's actions could open it up to a legal challenge, Tadych said, but Aceto said he thinks the edited minutes are legal.