Mount Airy News: City holds surprise vote on contract

From the Mount Airy News (3/20/10): After meeting behind closed doors at least an hour Thursday night, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted unexpectedly to approve a contract proposal affecting the local airport — a controversial subject in recent years.

An agenda for Thursday’s meeting contained no mention of the airport matter. The commissioners took their unanimous action late in the evening in the presence of only two citizens, which included no members of the press.

The draft agreement approved by the board calls for the elimination of all city funding responsibility for Mount Airy-Surry County Airport, although it is contemplated that the municipality might have a future funding role. It additionally reduces the number of city representatives serving on the Airport Authority, a group that oversees the joint facility.

That vote occurred despite assurances to The Mount Airy News from both Barbara Jones, interim city manager, and City Attorney Hugh Campbell that no action would be taken on any issue after the board returned from behind closed doors Thursday night.

Jones declined to answer questions about the matter when word of the action surfaced Friday, saying instead that a copy of the contract would be emailed promptly from her office — which did not occur. Jones has been serving in the interim role since the resignation of City Manager Don Brookshire two months ago.

Campbell, the city attorney, was asked Friday about how the action occurred as it did Thursday night and why the vote couldn’t have been delayed to the commissioners’ next meeting in early April. This would have allowed the public to scrutinize the contract proposal first and be present when it was officially addressed.

“It’s a fair question,” the attorney replied.

“I think the accurate response is, it’s something that has been discussed several times,” Campbell added. “It’s been discussed several times in closed session.”

“Well, I think the motivation for it is, we’ve just been going around and around on it and the Airport Authority needed a response,” Commissioner Todd Harris said Friday. “And we just wanted to go ahead and try to give a response.”

The agreement the city board voted on Thursday night is subject to the approval of county officials.

While there was no mention of the contract on Thursday night’s agenda, it did list comparatively minor issues such as the continuation of a lease agreement allowing a local farmer to grow corn on land in a city industrial park.

Closed Sessions Defended

Thursday night’s closed session was in keeping with a pattern noted since the end of 2009 in which gatherings behind closed doors have occurred at the end of every regular meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.

Mayor Deborah Cochran defended those sessions Friday, explaining that there have been several projects that two new commissioners, Steve Yokeley and Teresa Lewis, needed to be briefed on during the meetings. Cochran also pointed to the fact that the council is legally required to hold closed-door discussions on certain matters.

In some cases, the closed sessions have been lengthy, in contrast to the open portions of the meetings. The public part of a city commissioners meeting on March 4, for example, ran only about 20 minutes — much shorter than the subsequent discussions held in private.

Before beginning a closed-door session, one or more reasons for it must be clearly stated in the open. And while the agenda for Thursday night listed two reasons for the closed session held then — an attorney-client privilege matter and an issue regarding property acquisition — The News has learned that discussion also occurred on a personnel issue.

The N.C. Open Meetings law allows privileged matters to be discussed in private, such as ones dealing with economic development in addition to personnel, land acquisition, the attorney-client privilege and several others.

Campbell and other city officials insist that there was no attempt to circumvent the public by pushing the airport contract proposal through Thursday night without prior notice.

The contract approved by the city now will be forwarded to the Airport Authority and county government for their review, according to Campbell.

In addition to seeking to absolve Mount Airy from financial responsibility for the airport, the document calls for trimming the number of representatives the city has on the airport board from three to two.

“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” Harris said of the subject matter involved in the decision.

Lesser Airport Role

Though Mount Airy has sought to phase out its financial input to the airport, it maintains a vested interest in the facility through its funding support over the years.

“Importantly, the city will continue to participate in the identity, leadership and purposes of the Airport Authority,” Campbell said of provisions in the contract proposal.

Municipal officials have been moving toward a decreased role in the local airport that has been jointly funded by the city and Surry County since the 1960s. This trend has escalated over the past two years in conjunction with a controversial $14 million runway expansion, which Mount Airy was asked to contribute $600,000 toward.

But city leaders have said they could not justify such an expenditure, especially since city-based corporations that once housed aircraft there have closed.

Mount Airy also has tried unsuccessfully to annex the airport site at Holly Springs as a means of allowing it to receive property tax revenues to help offset the spending of city funds there.

by Tom Joyce, Mount Airy News Staff Writer