By David Rogers. December 11, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — A couple of years ago we penned an editorial in these pages, “Does Blowing Rock Really Need A Camp David?” In summary, we challenged the Town Council’s practice of holding an annual retreat two hours away, in Asheville.
To be clear, our objections had little to do with the location of the retreat EXCEPT for the context in which it was being staged. Many municipalities, similar to management teams in the private sector, hold retreats to get away from the distractions of the everyday conduct of business. Some boards engage in team-building exercises. Some hear reports from department heads. And some go to specific venues for specific reasons, i.e. Raleigh going to Charlotte to study its light rail transit system.
Council creating impediments to attendance does not make a meeting “open.”
The common denominator for 98% of the nearly 100 municipal retreats we have studied, however, is that they don’t make decisions. They don’t conduct votes. And they don’t even share meaningful discussion on issues that will eventually lead to a vote.
Sadly, for the last several years Blowing Rock’s town council has been a member of that other two percent (2%) of municipalities that don’t truly understand North Carolina’s open meeting laws. True, the Blowing Rock retreats have been announced as “open” to the public and, in most cases, with ample public notice but, realistically, when they are staged two hours away over three days and two nights, they become de facto closed meetings.
It is disingenuous for any Commissioner or Mayor to claim that their Asheville retreats are “open” when their room, board, and probably a travel allowance are paid for by the Town and any other constituent interests are required to attend at their own expense. The Town may very well be able to negotiate favorable group rates for the Town Council members and staffers attending, but those lower group rates are not available for individuals. Even deciding to stay and eat off-site, at another lodging alternative, the concerned citizen or media representative wanting to attend has to pull money out of pocket for expenses that are being paid by the Town for Council members and staff.
NO FAKE MEETINGS.
So let’s get this idea out of our heads that these are truly open meetings. By holding a retreat over three days and two nights at a faraway site, the Council members are creating impediments to attendance by other interested parties.
If Blowing Rock’s Town Council wants to spend $3,000 each year to conduct team-building exercises in a faraway land, we don’t have a problem with that. If Blowing Rock wants to go study why Asheville has a more vibrant arts culture or more diverse nightlife than Blowing Rock, we have no problem with that, either. Heck, they are volunteering their time and energy with very little in the way of compensation in service to the Town, so let’s buy them a beer while they are there.
That would all be OK, but only IF no votes are taken nor there be material discussion about issues that will influence future votes. In reviewing last year’s retreat minutes, there were 29 items of business conducted. Most were rather trivial items, but there were some issues, topics, and decisions (votes) that SHOULD have more properly been aired in a truly open meeting.
For instance, while one Commissioner recently told me that he didn’t know anything about the problems with Memorial Park trees until the clear-cutting rumors started in the late spring, in fact the issue was raised at the January retreat in connection with the the discussion about winter lighting. Almost as a footnote, the minutes read, “Council determined the FY 2017-2018 budget needs to include replacing eight (8) Maple trees deemed dangerous in Memorial Park with large caliper trees.”
So if Council “determined” that money should be allocated in the budget for replacing eight red maple trees in the park, that is a discussion that would have benefited from a more public airing. The related issues, circumstances and reasons would have surfaced much sooner than current discussions, and more than likely the public alarm about clear-cutting Memorial Park would have been mitigated.
It would have been interesting to have heard he discussion about the proposed changes to parade timing, especially since one of the then sitting Commissioners had a conflict of interest in those discussions AND so many of our Town’s businesses are affected either positively or negatively or both by parade times.
In retreat, the Council DECIDED.
There was material discussion about turning the Old Fire Station into a Cultural Arts Center in collaboration with the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce and the Village Foundation as a prospective funding source. The Council DECIDED on certain stipulations for a Memorandum of Agreement. When was it decided that the conversion should actually take place? When was the opportunity presented for other potential partners to compete for such a relationship, or is this a restricted bidding opportunity?
A couple of years ago, there was a proposal from Blowing Rock Country Club (BRCC) for the Town to participate in a project to create a left hand turn lane coming off of Country Club Dr. onto U.S. 321. BRCC was carving out some land, the NCDOT was reportedly willing to integrate the construction into their plans for the widening project, and the Town was asked to contribute some funds to help pay for it. In retreat, the idea was dismissed by vote without so much of a public hearing or an opportunity for the interested parties to make their case.
In the January 2016 retreat, Council DECIDED to move forward with the pilot program for an automated water meter system with 100% of the funding coming from the Town. Now here is an issue that could have benefited for a more public discussion, to be sure.
Also at the 2016 retreat, there was discussion leading to “moving forward” with a $35,000 upfront expenditure for a new website design and possibly $6,000 annually for maintenance and upgrades.
These are just a few of the examples of topics and DECISIONS (votes taken) made historically at Blowing Rock Town Council’s January retreat that could have benefited from a more public airing.
Having a retreat to get to know one another is one thing. Conducting Town business — engaging in material discussions, taking votes and making decisions — in what is a de facto closed session is quite another. To coin a trendy phrase, Blowing Rock and its constituent interests do not deserve “Fake Open Meetings.”
Calling a meeting open does not, in reality, make it so — especially when your expenses are paid for and the costs to the public you SERVE are not.