By: Mark Fitzgerald
The Alamance News is a 6,500-circulation weekly dedicated to extremely local news out of Alamance County in central North Carolina. But second-generation owner Thomas E. Boney Jr. warns: “We’re not a stereotypical fluffy-wuffy community paper. We take a pretty aggressive stand on public records and open meetings.”
The stuffed shirts of the Burlington-Alamance Airport Authority, who are mostly bankers and lawyers in their day jobs, found that out the hard way. The big issue for the authority at its May 29 meeting was an $11 million loan to buy some nearby property for a mysterious new business, rumored to be a plant that would manufacture engines for Honda’s new line of private planes. Rather than discuss the loan in public, authority members ? whom the Alamance News would note have several potential conflicts of interest among them ? tried to go into a closed session.
They wouldn’t give editor/publisher Boney a good reason why. Or any reason, for that matter. “I read from meeting notification requirements of the city and county open-meetings laws, and they just said, A, we’re not going to answer any of your questions, and B, we’re not going to discuss it,” he recalls. So Boney made an announcement of his own: “I said, ‘This is not a legally closed meeting’ ? and I was not leaving.”
Authority members called sheriff’s deputies, who figured pretty quickly they’d better call in the sheriff himself. Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson tried to talk Boney into leaving ? but ended up sounding persuaded by the newspaper man. “He’s got a valid point about having access to public meetings,” Johnson later told the Star-News in Wilmington, N.C.
But a sheriff’s gotta do what a sheriff’s gotta do. Boney, 52, was arrested, and charged with misdemeanor trespassing.
Boney didn’t sound worried about the outcome of the case ? probably because he’s been down this road a couple of times before, although this is his first arrest. In 2000, the Burlington City Council went into a closed meeting to discuss a land purchase ? sound familiar? ? and “literally told me if you don’t like it, sue us,” Boney says.
So he did. When a court gave the paper 75% of what it was looking for, the city council figured he’d be satisfied. They figured wrong. “To their surprise, we appealed to get, as it were, that 25% we didn’t get,” he says. In 2002, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the Alamance News deserved it all.
Has the city council learned its lesson? “Hope springs eternal,” Boney says dryly, noting that at a meeting the day after his arrest the city council respectfully answered all the questions he asked. “We often joke there’s an awful lot of this public-meeting violation going on in Alamance County,” Boney laughs, “but people in the state press association tell us that’s only because we’re actually going to all these meetings.”