The Southern Environmental Law Center is asking the Raleigh-Durham International Airport Authority board to rescind any decisions it made in closed sessions over the past two years after questions were raised about a decision not to sell a tract of land by Umstead Park to the Conservation Fund.
In a letter sent on behalf of the Umstead Coalition to the board’s chairman, Farad Ali, who is running for mayor of Durham, the SELC sets a September 19 deadline for a response.
The Conservation Fund in July made a more than $6 million offer for 105 acres of land between Umstead Park and Interstate 40. The SELC believes that offer was rejected in an “unlawfully held closed session meeting” on August 17.
“The Authority has received the letter written by SELC and will look into the claims made in that letter,” the airport authority said in a statement. “The authority takes its responsibilities under open meetings laws very seriously and carefully considers all decisions to enter into closed session. While we dispute SELC’s allegations, we will be reviewing the circumstances surrounding the closed sessions and will respond to SELC’s letter appropriately.”
North Carolina open-meetings law requires public bodies to give advance notice of their meetings, including closed sessions, and lays out ten scenarios in which a body can go into a closed session. A motion to go into closed session, however, must be made in open session, and any subsequent action must be taken in open session. The law also requires that “full and accurate minutes” be kept of open and closed meetings.
Although the SELC letter says the airport authority went into closed session at nine a.m. that day “without giving any prior notice to the public,” a meeting notice sent out on August 15 did say a closed session would be convened “to confer with attorneys to maintain the attorney-client privilege and to protect proprietary and confidential information.” That information was included as part of a notice regarding the board’s regular meeting later that same day.
Still, the SELC says the board did not openly make a motion to meet in private and the discussion about a request for proposal for the land didn’t entirely fall under the category attorney-client privilege, one of the reasons a body can go into closed session.
“We have reason to believe that, during its unlawfully held closed session meeting on August, 17, 2017, RDUAA discussed and possibly voted on the rejection of the Conservation Fund’s offer for the parcel referenced as Odd Fellows and the creation and release of a Land Lease RFP for that parcel that was subsequently released to the public on September 8, 2017,” the Umstead Coalition’s letter says. “While any communications RDUAA had with its attorney regarding legal advice for the RFP were privileged, all other discussions relating to the RFP should have been held during a meeting open to the public.”
The airport authority has said that, as a practice, it doesn’t sell land. The request it put out on September 8 is for proposals to lease any of three parcels of land adjacent to the park.
“Our long-standing practice is to not sell land,” the airport authority wrote in a September 8 blog post that makes reference to the Conservation Fund’s offer. “This is necessary in order to comply with a myriad of federal laws and regulations, have adequate space for future development, and just does not make good business sense.”
Kym Hunter, a staff attorney with the SELC, says the organization has been working “for a few months trying to get some transparency” about the land discussions.
As a result of the August 17 meeting, closed sessions over the past two years are being called into question because that’s about how long discussion of the Umstead parcels has been underway, Hunter said.
“We don’t know what’s happening at those closed meetings,” she says.
The Umstead Coalition is asking to review minutes from the August 17 meeting and for the board to rescind “all decisions that have been made over the past 24 months in closed session meetings,” including decisions to reject the Conservation Fund’s offer and to issue the request for proposals released on September 8. It also asks that the board turn over any evidence, if it exists, that those decisions were made in open session. [pdf-1]