By David Rogers. January 2, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC – The word “transparency” has been bandied about a lot in Blowing Rock the past few years. It has not only been used by Blowing Rock News, but also by groups like Blowing Rock Civic Association, as well as by individuals. Candidates for Town Council have even promised greater transparency in local government, if they were elected.
What is transparency and why is it important in and to local government? The short answer: Transparency provides voters, taxpayers and other constituent interests with an ability to see inside their governance. It is an insurance policy, of sorts, insuring that our local officials (both elected and hired town staff) are acting in the collective best interest of Blowing Rock and its citizens.
And yet, there are more serious implications reflected by those decisions
Transparency in government is a mandated requirement in North Carolina. It is no longer just a dream of the people who elect local or state officials. By law, the days of behind the scenes wheeling and dealing are no longer to be tolerated, however minor an issue might be and however innocent and convenient those deliberations might seem to the town officials at the time they are engaged in any backroom maneuvering.
Do you remember what happened in December?
Taken by themselves, what emerged at December’s Blowing Rock Town Council meeting as contentious votes about who will serve as Mayor Pro-Tem and the location for the annual planning retreat are little more than tempests in a teapot. And yet, there are more serious implications reflected by those decisions.
In mid-November, we called out what we learned was Commissioner Sue Sweeting’s behind the scenes political wheeling and dealing to get herself named Mayor Pro-Tem of the new Town Council. Mayor Pro-Tem is largely a ceremonial role, but nonetheless potentially important should something unforeseen compromise the Mayor in the discharge of his duties. There seemed to be more than a little rancor on the Council bench among and between the Commissioners as it became apparent that Sweeting had Commissioners Doug Matheson and Virginia Powell “in her pocket” beforehand for the Mayor Pro Tem position, just as suggested by our editorial of November 18th (CLICK HERE to revisit it).
There was no discussion. They just did it.
Despite our efforts to bring awareness to Sweeting’s machinations and maneuvering, those three commissioners represented the 3-2 majority that elected Sweeting to the position without the benefit of any kind of articulated reason for doing so. Because some kind of agreement among the three was apparently secured beforehand, they didn’t feel the need to say “why” Sweeting should be Mayor Pro Tem. There was no discussion. They just did it.
From our vantage point, that predetermined decision alone serves to underscore the arrogance, as well as the dysfunction of the current Town Council, as currently comprised.
Doubling down on Sunshine Law violations?
What was also curious, if not alarming about the December meeting of Town Council was the decision about the location of the January retreat — even if we like the decision to hold it in Blowing Rock instead of Asheville.
Blowing Rock News has long been critical of this annual retreat being held in Asheville, some two to three hours from public view and at significant expense to any members of the media or the electorate at large should they wamt to attend. Way back in January 2016, we questioned whether Blowing Rock really needs its own “Camp David.” (CLICK HERE to review that editorial).
While we agreed with the decision to hold the retreat in Blowing rock at long last, it was obvious that there had been behind the scenes wheeling and dealing beforehand.
In summary, when comprehensive discussion occurs among Council members about various issues — and especially when votes are taken and decisions made — what are being labelled as “retreats” really become de facto closed meetings. Even if advertised that they are “open” meetings, because of the expense to anyone other than the Town Council members and town staff (whose lodging, travel expenses, and meals are ultimately paid for by taxpayers), others who might want to sit in on those discussions and observe any decisions being made are discouraged from attending because of the distance, time away from jobs, and costs over three days on their own nickel.
So, while we agreed with the December meeting’s decision to hold the retreat in Blowing Rock at long last, it was obvious to the outside observer that there had been some behind the scenes wheeling and dealing to make that decision. Otherwise, those of us in the audience would not have witnessed the vocal bewilderment of Commissioners Doug Matheson and Albert Yount, who had apparently been left out of the behind-the-scenes maneuverings.
Yount, in particular, was vocal with his surprise that any discussions were even going on among other commissioners and possibly the mayor and members of town staff. At one point, he declared, “This does not meet the smell test.”
Both Yount and Matheson appeared to think that the retreat would return to Asheville, where it has been for several years now, rightly or wrongly. They had apparently been excluded from the pre-Council meeting maneuverings.
Why is this important?
Even where the issues are relatively minor, the kind of backroom deal-making in these two instances – Mayor Pro Tem and the January retreat location — would, in all probability, be ruled in court as violations of North Carolina’s “Sunshine Laws”. Decisions of the Board of Commissioners are supposed to be made and even debated out in the open unless they legitimately and formally go into closed session.
Blowing Rock deserves better than what we are getting. Where such maneuverings are found out, fellow commissioners, the Town Manager and the Town Attorney need to hold such violators’ feet to the proverbial fire and challenge them, reminding them of their rights and responsibilities under state law.
Individually and collectively, non-professional government servants are going to make mistakes…but they should work hard not to repeat them.
Just as in the forced recusal of Sweeting last May when she was caught baldly violating restrictions on ex parte communications related to a quasi-judicial public hearing, holding elected officials accountable protects the interests and rights of the citizens of Blowing Rock who have entrusted them in good faith with these civic affairs.
It is rare that an elected member of a small-town board of commissioners also happens to be a current or former professional government servant. Instead, almost all town council members come from other walks of life, presumably to serve the good of the people as best they can. Without question, we appreciate and respect their willingness to serve, as long as they do so honorably and above board.
Individually and collectively, non-professional government servants are going to make mistakes. That was clearly evident last year. But if they are truly honorable as well as of good character and integrity, they will work very hard to not repeat the mistakes made, learn from them, and study diligently to understand and overcome their shortcomings.
Agreeing that transparency is a legal requirement under state law is just the beginning. It is also in the collective best interest of a municipality and its citizens. It is absolutely essential that all Blowing Rock officials act in a transparent manner. Backroom deals before public discussion and before prospective votes are taken on any issue, major or minor, is NOT adhering to transparency principles.