UNC-Chapel Hill has begun work on a plan for the future location of the Silent Sam Confederate monument, but so far the university’s Board of Trustees has conducted its only substantive discussions on the issue in private.
In the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 20 toppling of Silent Sam by protesters, the trustees held a series of conference calls among a few members at a time, carefully avoiding a majority gathering, which would have constituted a public meeting under the law. No public meeting was announced before the conference calls.
No action was taken during those phone calls, and a quorum was not reached, making them acceptable under the law, trustee chair Haywood Cochrane said Thursday.
“We live by the rules,” Cochrane said.
The board did convene publicly on Aug. 28, but held several hours of talks behind closed doors, citing permissible exceptions in the law surrounding discussion of legal issues, criminal investigations and safety.
It’s unclear whether the trustees will ever hash out the issue in public.
The board’s next full meeting is scheduled for Nov. 15 — the day a recommendation from the campus is due to the UNC system’s Board of Governors. The proposed plan for Silent Sam could be unveiled that day, without much time for public deliberation.
Cochrane said it was possible the board could schedule a special meeting before then, but it’s not likely.
A government watchdog group said that’s a concern. The issue of whether Silent Sam is moved to a new location or placed back on its original pedestal has been of keen public interest.
“Obviously it’s problematic, because they are public officials, and we expect them to be accountable to us,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform.
It’s permissible for public bodies to have private discussions without a quorum in advance of a meeting about an issue coming before the body, said Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association.
However, Martin said in an email, “the body cannot act through ‘consensus building’” in individual or small group communications. That was decided in a court case involving the school board in Onslow County making decisions in a series of phone calls. “The court said they could not do that,” Martin said.
At Thursday’s trustee meeting, Cochrane asked the public for input about Silent Sam. Earlier this week, the university set up a dedicated email address to receive ideas from people; those emails can be disclosed publicly under the law.
“We continue to hear from many people that shared their opinions and feedback about this critical issue,” Cochrane said, adding, “We not only want your help, we need your help. We need your creative ideas.”
Chancellor Carol Folt said the university had already received some interesting and heartfelt suggestions regarding the statue, but declined to go into detail.
“We need to do the best plan possible, because people have so many different opinions about it,” Folt said. “It’s our job, to try to really come up with a plan that’s going to be healing for the community.”
Last month, Folt said it was her preference to find a new home on campus for the statue, “but not at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public research university.”
She said Thursday the process ahead can be what the university does best, which is try to bring people together in collaboration. “Let’s talk about what the goal is, let’s talk about the obstacles, let’s think, what are the values that we share, and then let’s figure out the idea,” she said.
University leaders will be in listening mode during campus forums involving students, faculty and staff, Folt said.
She said she couldn’t predict whether there would be one final recommendation put forth, or a series of options. Considerations will include cost, public safety and legal issues.
Since Silent Sam fell, several protests have occurred around the pedestal, resulting in arrests and police using pepper spray on the crowds. The town of Chapel Hill, the local chamber of commerce and a business group have said the statue should not go back on McCorkle Place near Franklin Street. A group of black faculty have issued a statement saying it doesn’t belong on campus at all.
A 2015 state law prevents moving or altering historic monuments, but does not address what should be done with a monument that is illegally removed. At least one member of the UNC Board of Governors said the statue must be reinstalled in its original spot.
Whatever happens, the controversial statue’s ultimate location is likely to make some people unhappy.
That’s why a public deliberation by the Board of Trustees is important, Pinsky said, rather than private conference calls like those that occurred in August. “It is maybe within the letter of the law,” she said, “but it’s not necessarily in the spirit of the law.”
The board has already been criticized for asking one member, Student Body President Savannah Putnam, to recuse herself from the Aug. 21 phone call, due to a “conflict of interest.” The executive branch of the student government, headed by Putnam, had put out a strong statement saying the activists that pulled down the statue “had corrected a moral and historical wrong.”
A conflict of interest usually refers to a situation in which a board member has an economic interest in a matter before the board.
The recusal request was first reported by the student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. Putnam did not respond to a phone message, and she has since participated in trustee meetings where Silent Sam came up.
In a statement released by a UNC spokeswoman, Cochrane explained his request.
“We were conducting a series of calls with trustees to provide legal advice regarding their potential roles as a trustee after such an incident,” Cochrane said. “Because Savannah in her role as Student Body President had already made a public statement about the toppling of the confederate monument, she now has a conflict of interest with her role as a trustee. I suggested she recuse herself from the call, and she agreed, and I told her we would reconnect at a later time to inform her of any issues unrelated to the role of trustees issue.”