Transparency in Western North Carolina
Freelance writer and N.C. Open Government Coalition member Tom Bennett conducted a review of how easy it is to access basic information about county commissioners in 28 western counties. He found that some counties, such as Catawba, make it easy for citizens to keep tabs on their government, and others have a long way to go.
By Tom Bennett, Special to N.C. Open Government Coalition
Western North Carolina, March 15, 2016 -- Catawba County, whose county seat is Newton, opens wide its government. For the meetings of its board of commissioners, at which decisions are made affecting everyone in Catawba County, the meeting agendas are blazingly transparent – a word meaning you can find and read them.
Days in advance, citizens can know what their elected commissioners are going to be talking about at the meeting. If alarmed by any of the matters to be aired, the citizens – many of them elderly for this is a major U.S. retirement location -- can make plans to travel through the mountains in the dark of night and be there.
“Agenda are posted online on our website, and through our Facebook and Twitter feeds, five days prior to most meetings,” said Dave Hardin, Catawba Co. public information officer.
“They are posted on the Wednesday afternoon prior to the Board of Commissioners meetings, which normally are on the first Monday of each month at 9:30 a.m. and the third Monday of each month at 7 p.m.
“Although members of the media are aware of those Wednesday online posts, they receive a link to a full packet (including memos and other reports to the board of commissioners, all of which are also posted online and through Facebook and Twitter) on Thursday morning.”
MY SURVEY IN FEBRUARY 2016 of 28 western counties’ boards of commissioners public records also reveals how the counties Alexander, Allegheny, Ashe, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Cleveland, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Lincoln, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Polk, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga and Wilkes (21 of 28) post agendas on county web sites sometime before meetings occur.
So the millions of retirees in the mountains from Interstate 77 west to the Tennessee state line who own hard drives, and who arrive here pure as driven snow insofar as local-government public information is concerned, have a way to know what their county property taxes are affording.
Now I continue with other findings from my survey:
The counties Allegheny, Catawba, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Rutherford, Transylvania and Watauga identify the specific statutorily permitted reason or reasons for executive session closed meetings.
The counties Allegheny, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Cherokee, Cleveland, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Madison, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey, employ a county attorney who attends the board of commissioners meeting. So in those 15 counties, or about half, as the matters are aired and even decided by the boards, citizens can turn to watch the attorneys’ body language, smiles of approval, or raised eyebrows of alarm.
ONLINE ARCHIVES OF LONG-AGO APPROVED MINUTES
The counties Burke and Rutherford are the two in western North Carolina that are among nine of this state having at www.mcci.org some archives of their fairly long-ago approved minutes of their boards of commissioners. At that website of Metropolitan Code Corporation Inc. based in Tallahassee, Fla., I can see that Burke County, North Carolina’s minutes archive goes back as far as 1998. Rutherford County’s is much older. I learn from the very first – the minutes of May 22, 1981 -- how the commission heard a report from the finance officer that the tax rate would be 89 cents per $100 of valuation.
A goal for the genuine transparency minded counties should be to contract with MCCI, whose owners or employees I don’t know from Adam’s housecat; assign a county intern to go to the county storeroom and scan the pages of the old bound volumes to create an online archive. These archives would thereby permit WNC journalists to do Google-like searches in MCCI of hundreds of familiar themes of local government that are apparent in the final segment of this report. I venture to say every search would deepen a current article or Internet post.
Much work remains to be done
Landline phone numbers at every CONTACT US click in actual fact are fairly moot and what the WNC county government officials decide to answer, and to share with a few they trust, are their cell- or smartphone numbers. So when naively calling a landline number, you reach a disembodied voice walking you through a punch code department by department.
The WNC board of commissioner meeting cable telecasts reaching limited customer lists in limited county areas cable-wired are laudable indeed.
However, the audio quality may not be the best; viewers may or may not be able to make out what’s been said, even mumbled, from the board members or the testifiers. The chairperson may or may not have stated agenda items in fulsome context; he or she may have used inside-baseball code slang for the ongoing matters before boards. No screen fonts on the cable telecast explain what issues now are before the boards. To use your remote and come upon one the meetings may be as revelatory as watching a public meeting in Europe.
Citizens’ who gain recognition during the public forums could make arguments that are sharply focused and admirably succinct declarations employing Aristotelian logic. Or they could be rambling rants. The savvy boards of commissioners impose time limits.
The ambiguous, contradictory N.C. general statute 143-318.11 Closed Session currently states “it is the policy of the state to hold closed sessions” (states in a democracy don’t hold closed sessions at local government agencies) and then the flawed law details how someone, the state or the local agency, it isn’t clear, is required to act in the public interest (as determined by the county attorney? Who may or may not be present?). And G.S. 143-318.11 continues to then only assert the public body may hold a closed session and exclude the public.
Swain County’s Jan. 14 agenda, in item five, asserts: “Closed session items as required by law.” That’s a self-serving transliteration of 143-318.11 and it’s not exactly true.
A few counties present the same statutorily permitted secret-meeting boilerplate laundry list of reasons that’s concreted, frozen into, embedded into their Word document templates for their meeting agendas. This incorrect flawed Word doc is there for county managers to pick up twice a month. The documents rubric has some of the current N.C. statutorily permitted reasons for executive session, while omitting others. Does it affirm that the counties posting this laundry list forever in fact (happily) discount the other currently statutorily permitted reasons for secret meetings and those counties never will close meetings for them? I hope so.
Frozen there, this rubric list infers that those county governments are going to have, at least 24 times each year, the need to darken, totally go secret, from now until the end of time.
The rubric list inadvertently trains citizens – and neophyte newly elected commissioners not yet getting introductions to open government at Institute of Government at UNC or Southwestern Commission at Sylva – trains the citizens how the counties are permanently conflicted and non-cooperative, will always make secrecy necessary. What the concrete rubric list does is help perpetuate those characteristics of permanent conflict and non-cooperation.
Counties’ actions affect millions
The late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill (1912-1994) said, “All politics are local.” Topics of western North Carolina county boards of commissioners meetings recently have included:
An audit wasn’t finished in time.
Elsewhere, the county attorney affirms an audit has been completed “with a clear unmodified opinion.”
The county’s shelter for the homeless is ready for cold weather.
A local community college takes over a county’s economic development role.
The comprehensive transportation plan of the county has been completed.
The Connect NC public improvement bond is backed by the commissioners.
Elsewhere, there is a recommendation that, for the time being, a resolution backing the bond be pulled and checked for accuracy.
A land developer requests that his project in one of the towns be annexed by the county.
Employees’ per-meal and per-mile travel reimbursements are defined.
Staff research ensures that parcels being aired for re-zoning are outside FEMA flood high-risk areas.
The board airs the future of health care in the county.
Jail feasibility study affirms all cells are double occupancy.
The board meeting begins with a moment of silence for the late landfill director.
A merchant’s parking lot is collapsing into the sewer line.
Surplus real-estate property owned by the county is available.
Road names are chosen by the commissioners for the county map in a public hearing.
A plan is aired for removal of debris from the French Broad River.
Rising water in the Linville River at the Green Road Bridge is blocking ambulance access.
The shooting range is voted more money in the county budget.
There is a study for removing the staircase from the courthouse lobby “for security purposes.”
The extent of increased wilderness-area set-asides that are in a draft national forest 15-year plan are being aired by the agency.
Tom Bennett is a retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer and editor and also retired founding board secretary of the Ga. First Amendment Foundation, which works on open-government issues and is supported by the newspaper and its law firm Dow Lohnes of Atlanta.