By David Rogers. January 20, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Let’s call it what it is: locally historic — and a great lesson in civic affairs.
Our message on these pages over the past few years has been that the Town Council’s holding a “retreat” two hours away in Asheville, even though it is advertised as a public meeting that anyone can attend, is in all practicality a de facto closed session. That’s because it is impractical for most citizens and other potentially interested constituents, including media, to spend three days at a distant location on their own dime. It also takes two days out of the normal work week. Not for all, of course, because Monday was also a federal holiday celebrating the life, times and influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. on our great nation.
We understand why many members of the Board of Commissioners and Mayor might like to get away.
In fact, we have no problem with Town Council going to another town or city to see how another municipality deals with an issue, whether it be mass transit, parking, or how their host city might nurture a vibrant arts culture. We have no problem with using the retreat for team-building exercises or encounter group sessions. We even don’t have a problem with the Council using the retreat to hear department head reports about what they’ve done and what resources they’ll need in the months ahead to achieve their departmental goals and objectives.
Whether or not they admit it, a good bet would be that Council members are now coming to grips with how many decisions — votes — have been made in previous years at these retreats.
But as a de facto closed meeting, we have argued that Town Council should not be taking votes, whether roll call or by consensus.
This year, thanks to our published concerns, organized objections by groups like Blowing Rock Civic Association, and a potpourri of various individuals’ explaining to Council members new and old what they expect from a municipal board governed by North Carolina’s open meeting laws, this year’s retreat discussions were open, candid, and perceptive about a great number of topics — but the Town Council made no decisions. They took no votes. That was by mutual agreement of the Commissioners, the Mayor, and the Town Manager — and we applaud that decision.
In the final hours of the Blowing Rock Town Council’s annual retreat in Asheville earlier this week, there was a growing concern expressed among the members about how “packed” February’s regular meeting agenda was going to be because of the various discussion items that were deferred from retreat to a regular meeting.
It is dangerous to assume that everyone agrees on what is “minor” and “major,” and it is the latter that deserve public deliberations.
Whether or not they admit it, a good bet would be that Council members new and old are now coming to grips with how many decisions — votes — have been made in previous years at these retreats. In those “olden” times, votes were taken and decisions made when nobody was around to hear, question, and even maybe contribute. There were 33 items on the agenda in 2016, 29 in 2017. Like this year, most were minor and a more public airing would make little difference.
But it is dangerous to assume that everyone agrees on what is “minor” and “major,” and it is the latter that deserve public deliberations.
This is a public expression of appreciation for the often tireless work by our Commissioners and Mayor and Town Staff in their service to the Town, and that includes past and present. We think it is fair to say that no one thinks any of the Council members have intentionally made unfair or self-serving decisions at these retreats, but especially in this day and age it is important to do things right when it comes to North Carolina’s open meeting laws.
…they want their voices to have access to the halls of power.
The days of good ol’ boy governance are a thing of the past, however well they may have served municipalities in the past. In this Information Age of recent decades, advances in communications technology resulted in as well-educated a general public about issues and the consequences of government body decisions as ever before.
Enhancing citizen opportunities to voice their informed and thoughtful opinions was on the minds of Blowing Rock’s Town Council at the Asheville retreat. As a result of this discussion, it sounds like the “Speakers from the Floor” part of the regular Council meetings will be moved up in the agenda, perhaps between the Consent Agenda and Old Business. If that comes to pass, it means that our Council members are truly listening.
It was heartening to learn at the retreat about the arguably record number of Blowing Rock residents who have put their names forward as candidates for the open seats on the volunteer boards: Planning, Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Board, ABC, TDA, and Board of Adjustment. It means that people care about the direction of the Town and its government, and they want to be involved.
Today’s citizens want to stay informed. For the issues that matter to them, they want their voices to have access to the halls of power.