By David Rogers. September 13, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC – For a Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners whose members like to hear themselves talk (a lot), what we have here is a failure to communicate (to borrow a phrase from Paul Newman’s movie classic, Cool Hand Luke).
Before we launch into a critique of Blowing Rock’s legislative body, please know from the outset that we like each of the Town Council members individually and appreciate their willingness to serve Blowing Rock as elected officials.
That said, in taking on the mantle of Commissioner, then they MUST understand their roles and ADEQUATELY PREPARE for each issue considered. The Board of Commissioners is not the place to be self-stroking egos. It is instead a body of individuals that should be committed to public SERVICE.
Stirring Things Up
The September regular meeting of the Blowing Rock Town Council descended into chaotic drama early and often Tuesday night, once again reflecting this Board of Commissioners’ collective and individual tendencies toward micromanagement, sometimes grandstanding, lack of preparation, lack of listening, and yes, even the kind of callous arrogance we have mentioned in previous editorials. And if this keeps up, we only modestly have our tongue in cheek while suggesting that the Board of Commissioners will have to raise property taxes a full nickel just to pay for the increased cost of the Board’s ineptness.
If we thought the August meeting of Town Council was such a mind-numbing catastrophe — that we couldn’t pen a politely objective report about it — the Board of Commissioners one-upped themselves in their September edition. Residents, business owners, members of the media and even any insects crawling on the walls suffered through almost three and a half hours of the ridiculous.
The biggest problem is that this Board of Commissioners seems unwilling, individually and collectively, to understand how inept they are making themselves look in session. Sadly, this situation is likely not to be corrected unless two or more Commissioners resign and are replaced by special election or by whatever constitutes a more appropriate process. If instead of learning they remain defensive, since there is no impeachment process we might have to suffer through this mess of local government until the next two elections have cycled through.
There was drama and dark comedy, but little in the way of entertainment.
Commissioner Virginia Powell stirred things up at the very beginning when she challenged a New Business item’s even being on the agenda. She claimed that consideration of a mural on the side of a new utility building at Ray and Melissa Pickett’s Blowing Rock Inn on North Main St. (as public art) was premature because it hadn’t gone through what she opined was “proper protocol.” That is, she claimed that it had not been approved by either the Blowing Rock Planning Board or Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Commission (BRAAC).
Powell and fellow Commissioner Sue Sweeting feigned righteous indignation at apparently not being included as recipients of an email received by Mayor Charlie Sellers and Town Manager Ed Evans from BRAAC. That email informed Sellers and Evans that the volunteer committee of citizens HAD indeed offered their blessing for the project. The approval came as a result of a phone call or email poll that reportedly occurred between the time of the Board packet being prepared earlier and the Town Council meeting on Tuesday.
In spite of the revelation that BRAAC’s members had reviewed and approved the project, Commissioner Albert Yount declared, “I feel rushed.” Commissioner Jim Steele pointed out that “normally we have the drawings and such in our packets.” Sweeting added, “I think we have to follow protocol and I didn’t know anything about it.”
Well, if the Commissioners bothered to read or even scan their packets they would not have felt rushed. They would have seen that the drawing of the proposed art was included for their review. And given that the agenda item was included in the packet with the appropriate related documents, there is no excuse for any of the commissioners to “…not know anything about it.”
The only thing that might be construed as a variance from “protocol” was the timing of BRAAC’s review and approval. The Board packet’s memorandum simply said that at the time of its writing BRAAC was “reviewing” the project. BRAAC’s approval came after the packet preparation. According to the discussion and the decision made on Tuesday night, the Town of Blowing Rock and its volunteer citizen boards are not permitted to conduct business in the interim, apparently. Or, if they do, any action taken by the volunteer board must be personally emailed to Virginia Powell and Sue Sweeting before the Town Council meeting. Otherwise any decision by that volunteer board doesn’t count.
Let’s Fix Things
It was obvious to onlookers that Powell came into Tuesday’s confab determined to make her mark on Blowing Rock’s legislative history. Like she had done with the proposed mural, she challenged why the Board was even considering a gift from Morganton-based Foundation Forward, Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization focused on bringing the three documents at the foundation of America’s form of government to all of the more than 3,000 counties in all 50 states. They offered a 20-minute video presentation and prepared remarks early in the Council meeting, but the Commissioners reserved discussion until New Business.
When the issue came up under New Business, Powell claimed that this project had not been approved by BRAAC or the Planning Board, so shouldn’t be considered by the Board of Commissioners. Once again vociferously supported by Sweeting, if they had not received an email about BRAAC’s approval, then the approval didn’t happen. Once again, the male Commissioners on the Board politely cowed to the righteous indignation of their female colleagues and voted to delay consideration of a gift that didn’t cost the Town a penny and would bring inspiration and learning to Blowing Rock residents and visitors, young and old alike. If it wasn’t such a noble cause to which the Foundation Forward group is committed in helping make the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights living documents for all to appreciate, Foundation Forward’s leadership should consider taking their $25,000 to $65,000 gift elsewhere given the arrogance of this Board.
We have to ask: although these projects WERE approved by BRAAC (even though Sweeting and Powell didn’t get the emails saying so) and really qualified under Powell’s view of protocol, where is it written that all such projects MUST be first reviewed by BRAAC and/or the Planning Board before being considered by the Board of Commissioners? Isn’t the Board of Commissioners a supposed higher authority that could, if it chose to, supersede any blessing or non-approval of either of the volunteer commissions? When will these members of the Board of Commissioners learn how and why something can be placed on the agenda?
Well then, pink flamingos must actually be temporary signs.
Tuesday’s meeting of the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners required three and a half hours of this kind of group-grope and it didn’t get any better, only worse.
For some reason, Sweeting thought it important to bring back the sophomoric and ill-conceived “Town Manager Evaluation” document that was passed by the Board in August. It wasn’t to reconsider the document altogether (as it should have been) but to approve the “scoring” format. Ironically, it was Sweeting, Powell and Commissioner Jim Steele who formed the Board’s sub-committee that adapted a National League of Cities template document, supposedly “customizing” it to suit Blowing Rock. They nonetheless defended their amateurish adaptation in August and the scoring format was similarly approved on Tuesday – even though no logistical format or process for using the form was established. Does this give Sweeting a third opportunity to bring this silly document back to Council in October?
Are the Commissioners each going to be required to sign their assessment of the Town Manager? Adding to the other drama and chaos that was Tuesday night’s meeting, Yount stated very clearly, emphatically, and dramatically that he could envision NO scenario in which he would sign such a document, once he had scored it.
So, if they are not going to individually identify their scoring, are they going to create a summary score? Who is going to collect the individual tallies and calculate a summary score? To whom will a summary score be submitted? When are these documents supposed to be scored by the individual commissioners? Does the Mayor or anyone else (such as department heads who actually work day-to-day with the Town Manager) get to chime in? Are these evaluations going to be made public?
Especially when you use a human resources tool of this type, you must be careful HOW you use it and protect the integrity of not just the document, but the process by which it is being deployed. Apparently, this Board of Commissioners is unaware of the challenges such a document presents.
CLICK HERE to review Blowing Rock News’ earlier editorial about this evaluation document.
Of Pink Flamingos and Other Nonsense
Did we mention that some two dozen audience members had to suffer through this travesty of Tuesday’s Town Council meeting for three and a half hours? Even though there was ample drama, as well as what we will call “dark comedy,” there was little in the way of entertainment value.
It required more than 45 minutes for these “Commissioners” – and we are beginning to hesitate in using that term because they obviously don’t understand the role of a Board member – to approve a revision to the sign ordinance that was [a] drafted by a professional consulting firm; [b] vetted exhaustively and tweaked by a sub-committee of the Planning Board in concert with the consulting firm before being advanced to Town Council; and [c] REQUIRED to bring the Town’s regulations into compliance with a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (Reed v. Gilbert, AZ). In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court MANDATED that all municipalities in the U.S. needed to come into compliance with their ruling. Like other towns and cities, Blowing Rock had NO CHOICE.
Once again, all or most of the Commissioners were ill-prepared.
Instead of the Board promptly giving the sub-committee’s good work a “thank-you” and its blessing, Tuesday night’s public hearing descended into the weeds of educating individual commissioners as to what constitutes a temporary sign vs. a permanent sign, reaching perhaps the height of incredulity when Powell declared, “Well then, pink flamingos must actually be a temporary sign.” And there was no pretense that she was joking.
Once again, all or most of the Commissioners were ill-prepared. They either hadn’t read or were unable to comprehend the material they were given in the board packet. That packet included a case history and analysis from the University of North Carolina School of Government as to the implications and various rationales for the U.S. Supreme Court decision; an analysis drafted by Benchmark Consulting of potential issues with the legacy Town of Blowing Rock sign ordinance; and a draft new ordinance incorporating various suggested changes in order to achieve compliance with the Supreme Court decision. As a Board member, when Town staff is doing good work in providing you with the resources to be prepared, you should take advantage.
It was a draft that was considered in detail by the Planning Director, Benchmark, and the Planning Board sub-committee and later embraced, 6-1, in a vote by the full Planning Board before advancing the proposal to Town Council.
Attempt At Normal Business?
If there was any business conducted Tuesday night that resembled normal Board procedure, it was the Commissioners’ approval of a landscaping agreement between the Town and the North Carolina Department of Transportation for the ongoing maintenance of the areas along Valley Blvd. Town Manager Ed Evans presented a negotiated proposed agreement designed to avoid future problems like what occurred in the NCDOT’s beautification project at the interchange of U.S. 321 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Several or all of the plants installed in the interchange island died for various reasons and, per terms of the original agreement, the Town was stuck with the cost of redoing the project.
Did they, or didn’t they?
Even then, Commissioner Jim Steele brought up his admittedly vague, but unsubstantiated recollection that the NCDOT had promised $10,000 per year to the Town toward that Parkway/321 project’s upkeep. So, for several minutes the discussion among Board members descended into did they, or didn’t they?
We recall something along the lines of what Steele remembered, too, but we have no research or documentation to back it up. If you make such a claim or raise that kind of issue in a public board meeting, then don’t be casual about it. Have your ammunition at the ready. Do your research and find documentation that the NCDOT did, in fact, make that promise. Show us the minutes of a meeting. Better yet, show us the signed agreement offering the Town that promise of $10,000 per year. If something comes up that surprises you, and you haven’t had an opportunity to prepare your “ammunition,” then advance a motion to delay the matter until you have had that opportunity. Otherwise, you are just creating unnecessary drama and wasting everyone’s time.
Steele also figured in publicly challenging Town Engineer Doug Chapman’s “numbers” for the cost of the Sourwood Lane infrastructure project. Eventually the bid for the project was accepted as presented and Steele seemed satisfied, but can’t the clarification of those numbers be done outside of the public forum? If you want voters to know that you are doing your job and promoting fiscal restraint, then say, publicly at the meeting, “I initially had questions about these costs, but after seeking clarification last week from the Town Manager and the Town Engineer about my concerns, I am now satisfied that they are appropriate.” Such a statement would show that you had concerns about the cost – and that you are doing your homework.
Sweeting advanced a proposal to extend the Town’s 3-hour parking limit on Main Street to include Park Ave., Wallingford St. and the parking area in front of the American Legion Building. She proved to be a fount of misleading misinformation.
Otherwise, you are just creating unnecessary drama and wasting everyone’s time.
Instead of accepting Parks & Recreation Director Jennifer Greene’s explanations of how parking is used by groups renting the American Legion Building – a revenue source for the Town – and accepting that changing the parking requirements might be premature until the planned improvements are completed to Park Avenue and Wallingford St. in the very near term, Sweeting obstinately pressed her proposal. Even after Town Manager Ed Evans reported that plans for implementing the Virginia Tech proposal were underway and soon coming to fruition, Sweeting twice repeated something along the lines of, “I have heard about this project for two or three years.”
Why the grandstanding when you are being told that the project is about begin? It only shows that you are not listening or are unwilling to adapt priorities to new and better information.
Even after agreeing to take the south side of Park Ave., Wallingford St., and the American Legion parking out of her proposal, Sweeting maintained that there are 21 remaining parking spaces that could be limited to three hours and create more turnover to the benefit of Main Street shoppers and the stores they visit. In fact, if you take out the four spaces on the north side of Park Avenue that are reserved for visitors to the Chamber of Commerce and the Blowing Rock Visitors Center, there are only eleven spaces on the north side of the street.
The chaos that was this Town Council meeting only intensified at the end when Melissa Pickett, representing BRAAC as that volunteer board’s chairperson, appeared before the Board regarding the last agenda item, “BRAAC Request Regarding the Old Fire Station.”
Pickett stated that Parks and Recreation, in concert with BRAAC, could not continue with various plans for their continued use of the Old Fire Station and related areas nearby. The reason, she said, was because at the August Town Council meeting the Commissioners asked the Blowing Rock Village Foundation (BRVF) to consider other options for developing a Cultural Arts Center in downtown Blowing Rock, but they did not definitively take the Old Fire Station out of consideration for their proposed new facility. Pickett simply wanted the Board of Commissioners to make a “no” decision definite so that BRAAC and Parks & Recreation could move forward with their plans.
At the August meeting of Town Council, Sweeting, Powell and Steele apparently did not listen to anyone except to themselves, because they each claimed on Tuesday that they had made it “very clear” that the Old Fire Station should not be considered. Sweeting went even further and said she was offended by Pickett’s request that, she said, put the Board in an awkward position with the Village Foundation.
After the Picketts stormed out of the meeting because of Sweeting’s insults, both Mayor Charlie Sellers and Commissioner Yount recalled that while almost all of the Commissioners had expressed concerns opposing the Village Foundation’s proposed redevelopment of the Old Fire Station at the August meeting, the possibility was very much left up in the air and no definitive decision was actually made. That uncertainty coincides with Blowing Rock News’ recollection and notes, too.
Don’t be a selective listener.
Coming To A Head
The members of this Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners need to understand that they are policymakers, not managers of day-to-day operations. They need to adequately prepare for their roles, spending the time to read the packets and if something isn’t entirely clear, then ask the appropriate Town staff member for clarification. The Council meeting is not the appropriate venue for basic education. Usually it is best to remain silent because then your lack of preparation would not be revealed to the audience.
And have some flexibility. Especially where the information is included in the Board packet, be respectful of other people’s time, effort and intelligence. Just because you didn’t get an email of a VOLUNTEER board’s approval of a proposed project between the time the packet was prepared and the Town Council meeting, that shouldn’t get in the way of your consideration.
Perhaps above all, do not be a selective listener. It may well help you from showing your butt when others are actually seeing you as wrong.
These repeated three- and four-hour and even longer meetings are unnecessary. They are not just wasting a lot of people’s time, but wasting the Town’s cash resources, too, because except for the Town Manager, aren’t all of the Town’s staff members required to attend being paid overtime? The excessive amounts of time spent on what amounts to nonsense also discourages Blowing Rock residents from attending Council meetings.
Again, everyone is appreciative of every Town Council member’s willingness to serve, but in accepting the job those elected must make every effort to understand their roles and responsibilities in municipal governance.
Right now, the Blowing Rock Town Council is dysfunctional because those roles and responsibilities are not understood and individual members are coming to the meetings ill-prepared.