The state’s I-77 toll lane advisory group meets in secret. Did it violate state law?

The state’s I-77 toll lane advisory group meets in secret. Did it violate state law?

CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - A N.C. Department of Transportation advisory group created to study the Interstate 77 toll lane project met for the first time Wednesday, but the public and media were not allowed to attend.

The meeting was held at the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, which is not a public organization.

But the decision to hold the meeting behind closed doors could violate the state's open meeting law.

State law says that meetings of public bodies should, with few exceptions, be open to the public.

The law defines a "public body" as any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council or other body of the state. Though the I-77 group does not have any power, state law said that the open meetings law applies to public bodies that serve in an "advisory function."

In late 2017, DOT decided to form the advisory group, and sent letters to cities, towns, counties and chambers of commerce asking for them to appoint a member. The DOT has said it wants the group to advise the state on what to do with the controversial I-77 toll lane project, scheduled to be finished late this year.

Bill Russell, president of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, said the media could not attend the meeting. When asked why, Russell said "it's closed because we want a free-flowing conversation."

Nicole Meister, director of communications for DOT, said DOT would review whether the working group fell under the state's open meetings law. She said the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce said the group could use its board room, and the DOT agreed to have the meeting there.

"We didn't make any decisions on whether to let people in or not," she said.

Amanda Martin, attorney for the N.C. Press Association, said the working group should fall under the state's open meetings law.

"The fact that they don't have power is irrelevant," she said. "They are an advisory group."

Mecklenburg Commissioner Pat Cotham, who attended the meeting on behalf of the county, said before the meeting she was concerned the public would not be allowed to attend. She said she planned to ask whether future meetings should be open.

"I have struggled with that question," Cotham said about Wednesday's meeting being closed.

The I-77 toll lane project has stirred intense opposition among Lake Norman residents. Many believe Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper narrowly defeated Republican governor Pat McCrory in the November 2016 election thanks, in part, to usually Republican voters in north Mecklenburg voting for Cooper. Cooper said during the campaign he opposed the project.

After the election, Cooper's DOT hired a Philadelphia-based consultant, Mercator Advisors, to study the project and list the state's options. Mercator said the state should consider a number of options, including what some call "complete and delete."

Under that plan, the private contractor, Cintra, would finish the project. The state would then buy Cintra out. After that, DOT could choose to manage the toll lanes itself or it could convert the toll lanes to free lanes.

Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon said before the meeting the group would be asked to review that option. He said the state could still take over the project, even after it opens to the public.

"Nothing is off the table," he said.

Mercator said the state should also consider: Converting one of the toll lanes to a free lane; giving frequent users a discount; and modifying a 50-year noncompete clause that prohibits the state from widening the highway unless it provides financial compensation to Cintra.

Trogdon said he hopes the group can finish its work in four to six weeks. The next meeting hasn't been scheduled.

DOT released a PowerPoint presentation shown at the meeting. The presentation gave the working group a timeline of the project and an overview of the six options Mercator said DOT should consider.