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Newsmen returned to limelight in open meetings challenge

By Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.

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  • Charlotte Newscasts

    Estimated viewers for key newscasts during May sweeps and percentage change from last May as measured by Nielsen.

    6 A.M.
    WSOC 81,500Unchg.
    WBTV 44,300+7%
    WCNC 28,400+11%
    WCCB 8,800-25%
    WSOC 52,000-18%
    WCNC 9,700Unchg.
    6 P.M.
    WSOC 105,500+6%
    WCNC 38,900+8%
    10 P.M.
    WCCB 38,500-18%
    WAXN 36,000-7%
    WMYT 22,200+60%
    11 P.M.
    WSOC 94,000+14%
    WCNC 25,200-25%

    SOURCE: Nielsen.

It’s as though a time machine crashed at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.

Three reporters from the 1970s brought an action in April asking that the city of Charlotte be found in contempt of an open-meetings order they helped to secure in 1973. At issue was the behind-closed-doors vote to offer the Carolina Panthers millions of dollars for a stadium upgrade.

This week, Superior Court Judge Robert Sumner decided the action would not go forward because the open-meetings law from 1973 was rewritten by the legislature in 1979, meaning the original order was no longer valid. But it’s worth looking at the history, and the personalities behind it.

First is attorney Paul Whitfield, well qualified for a seat in the time machine: He brought the original action in the 1970s and still practices law in Charlotte.

His clients, now all in their 60s, still have name recognition among long-time residents: Mike Cozza, Ken Koontz and Bruce Bowers.

Cozza was a rookie reporter for the old Big WAYS radio when the lawsuit started. He went on to a long career at WBTV (Channel 3) covering government. Koontz was an anchor at WBTV in the ’70s who went on to the Charlotte-based NBC News Channel. Bowers worked as a reporter at both WBTV and WSOC (Channel 9) and now makes documentaries.

They were joined by Wayne Powers, a fill-in talk show host at WBT-AM (1110) and unsuccessful candidate for the county board of commissioners. Powers was not a party to the original proceedings, but is an open-government advocate.

In 1971 the issue was building a parking deck. City Council went into closed meeting to discuss it.

North Carolina’s open-meetings law was still young, and the city’s professional journalists’ organization didn’t think it was being widely followed. They brought suit against the city in the name of Observer reporter Bill Arthur, one of those excluded from the meeting. Separate open-meetings actions were brought against the school board and the county.

Cozza was just a young reporter at Big WAYS, barely known around town. But he was the one who asked City Council member Jim McDuffie what the secret meeting was about, and McDuffie told him on the record that it was about the parking garage.

WBTV and WSOC had joined the legal action and didn’t want Cozza testifying.

“Nobody considered Big WAYS to be a serious news contender,” recalls Whitfield. “But I realized by talking to Mike that he had the strongest testimony. So I led with Mike Cozza and Mike Cozza nailed it. We didn’t need anybody else.”

On March 6, 1973, Superior Court Judge Frank Snepp summoned Mayor John Belk and the City Council to his courtroom and told them to stand before him. He told them he did not personally like all the provisions of the open meetings statute, but the law was the law and he intended to enforce it.

“Snepp pointed his long, bony finger directly at Belk and said, ‘Sir, you will either abide by the law or I will put you in jail,’ ” Cozza recalls.

Whitfield doesn’t remember any bony finger, but says it was a dramatic moment.

“They were standing there at attention like a Marine unit,” he says. “He was lecturing them like schoolchildren.”

Snepp then issued a permanent injunction against the Charlotte City Council, ordering it to abide by the open meetings law.

A random encounter in late January led the journalists back to court. Cozza was having breakfast at Denny’s on Sunset Road when he spotted his old friend Koontz. They got to talking about the closed meeting about the Panthers’ stadium.

“Can you believe these guys doing all that?” Koontz said to Cozza. “I thought we had a court injunction against them.”

Cozza said that something should be done, and soon Bowers and Powers were on board. They didn’t think the local media were doing enough to protest the closed meeting. “So a bunch of old journalists stood up,” says Cozza.

Bob Hagemann, Charlotte city attorney, contends that the closed meetings to discuss the Panthers did not violate open meetings law. Closed sessions, he says, are permitted for discussions of economic development transactions with specific businesses, which includes discussions of potential incentives. He contends the Panthers discussions fall in that category.

Neither side got to argue those points. Sumner voided it based on the change in the law.

It did illustrate one point: Cozza and company were free to bring the challenge even though they were no longer members of the media. North Carolina’s open-meetings laws apply to everyone, and anyone has standing to challenge what they see as unwarranted secrecy.

Media Movers

Starting Monday in afternoon drive time on WBAV-FM (“V” 101.9) is Charlotte radio veteran Artie Goins with “Artie in the Afternoon.” She replaces the syndicated Skip Murphy show. Goins has been with sister station WPEG-FM (“Power” 97.9) since 1992. ...

Joining WSOC (Channel 9) as weekend anchor is Eric Philips, arriving from WSB, the Atlanta ABC affiliate and Channel 9’s sister station in Cox Media Group. Before WSB, Philips worked as a CNN correspondent. ... Andy Dean’s “America Now” syndicated show replaces Doc Washburn on WBT-AM (1110) in late evenings. Program director Jason Furst says the show wasn’t cost-effective. Washburn will continue as a fill-in host, Furst says. ...

Andres Guillama of Mindy’s bakery in Sylva will be among chefs on “Food Network Star” debuting 9 p.m. Sunday on Food Network. ...

Susan Ruskin has been named dean of the school of filmmaking at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. ... David Smith of Charlotte will be a contestant on “Let’s Make A Deal” airing 3 p.m. Tuesday on WBTV (Channel 3).

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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