NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · NORTH CAROLINA · Newsgathering · July 24, 2007
Trespassing charge against publisher dropped
July 24, 2007 · The North Carolina newspaperman and longtime open-meetings advocate whose latest run-in with public officials ended in a May arrest said he was vindicated last week when the local district attorney dropped a misdemeanor trespassing charge against him.
Tom Boney, 53, publisher of The Alamance News, a weekly newspaper in Graham, N.C., was arrested on May 29 because he refused to leave a special meeting convened by the Burlington-Alamance Airport Authority. The meeting was initially open to the public, but the board moved to close the meeting, citing an exception in the state’s Open Meetings Law that allows legislative bodies to close meetings to discuss economic development.
Boney said the board’s closure of the meeting to discuss $11 million in loans it wanted the Burlington City Council and county commissioners to approve for a HondaJet engine plant was illegal and not covered by the law’s exceptions.
Boney said that as he confronted the authority about its reason for closing the meeting, the board’s attorney told him, “We’re not taking any questions.”
Boney said he just wanted the authority to assure him that it would not discuss financial issues affecting city and county taxpayer behind closed doors.
When the authority closed the meeting, Boney refused to leave. The authority then called the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Terry Johnson arrived and arrested Boney on a single count of second-degree trespassing.
The district attorney’s office dismissed the charge on Friday, saying the incident between Boney and the authority was a “civil matter,” according to the dismissal notice. District Attorney Robert F. Johnson did not return telephone messages this week requesting further explanation.
Boney said in statement released Friday that “calling law enforcement to arrest a journalist who was asking questions about a matter of vital public interest smacked of an arrogance of power that remains deeply troubling.”
In a phone interview this week, Boney said he interpreted Johnson’s decision to mean that Boney should have left the meeting when asked and then sued the authority for violating the state’s open meetings law.
“I’m confident we have a strong case, but I’ve already gone that route before,” Boney said. “My hope had been to expedite the open meetings issue by getting arrested. We regard the district attorney’s decision as a vindication, but it didn’t speed things up.”
Boney’s brush with the airport authority was not his first clash with public officials over open meetings issues.
The Burlington City Council sued Boney in 2002 before a meeting even took place, knowing that he planned to challenge the meeting being closed. The council sought to have a judge explain its legal responsibility in providing the minutes to the meeting.
A state appeals court held in 2004 that the city had no legal standing to file suit. Boney also sued the city council in 2000 on a closed meeting issue similar to the one where he was arrested.