Smalltown Publisher/Editor Fights (and Wins) on Public Access

By: Mark Fitzgerald

The Alamance News is a 6,500-circulation weekly dedicated to the 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.”

Boy howdy.

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 — who 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 and 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 pretty quickly figured 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 has been down this road a couple of times before. Though this was his first arrest.

In 2000, the Burlington City Council went into a closed meeting to discuss a land purchase — sound familiar? — they “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 should get 100% of what it was seeking.

Just as the Supreme Court was about to rule, however, the paper got in another scrape with the city council when it went into a closed session over another matter. The council sued Boney preemptively. In 2005 they lost on appeal.

And now, Boney can add another notch to his string of open-meeting victories. On July 20, District Attorney Robert F. Johnson dismissed the second-degree trespassing charge for his sit-in at the airport authority meeting.

Johnson said the dispute between Boney and the authority was simply a civil matter, The Associated Press reported.

“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.”

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