Town Council “retreats” (again) to Asheville

Town Council “retreats” (again) to Asheville
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By David Rogers. January 16, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — The official public notice was finally issued this afternoon regarding the date, time and place of the Blowing Rock Town Council’s January 2019 “retreat.” Over several citizen and media objections, it will again be held at the Doubletree Inn in the Biltmore Village, 115 Hendersonville, Asheville, NC. It will be held over a three-day period beginning Sunday, January 20 (2:00 pm to 5:00 pm), continuing Monday, January 21 (8:15 am to 4:00 pm) and Tuesday, January 22 (8:30 am to 11:00 am).

While the agenda has not yet been finalized, Blowing Rock News obtained a list of potential Retreat topics earlier this month and we have copied those items below, as received. In today’s earlier public notice, it states that the final agenda will be available after noon on Friday, January 18th, on the Town’s website (www.townofblowingrock.com).

It’s a de facto closed meeting because most citizens (and media) are unable to attend because of time, distance, and cost.

For several years now, Blowing Rock News is on record as challenging the Board of Commissioners’ and Mayor’s need to have a retreat at a location two hours away from Blowing Rock. The Town Council members advertise the meeting to be open for any and all to attend, but in all sense of practicality it becomes a de facto closed session since most citizens are unable to attend either because of the time, distance, cost — or some combination of those factors (Town Council members and staff are attending with expenses paid by the Town, while citizens and media are on their own nickel for the three days of lodging, meals, and travel).

What’s more, since the retreat is being held at least partly on a holiday weekend, the Town may have to offer special compensation to staff members required to attend and it increases the likelihood that citizens (and media) will NOT attend because they have other plans for spending their holiday with family or friends.

Especially where the Board of Commissioners makes decisions, whether they perceive them to be minor or major, this is problematic, whatever the good intentions of the Council members. Certainly we applaud their willingness to sacrifice their own holiday weekends to deliberate on potentially weighty town issues, but interested parties deserve not just to bear witness to any decisions made and hear what votes are taken, but also to listen to the Commissioners’ collective and individual deliberations that lead to a decision, whether those decisions are made at the retreat or at a future regular meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

Last year, under pressure from Blowing Rock News, various vocal individuals, and citizen groups, there were plenty of discussions leading to decisions, but all actual votes were deferred to the February meeting.  We applaud the Commissioners for at least that compromise, even though it led to a very lengthy February agenda and meeting. If nothing else, that lengthy agenda and the deferment of decisions underlines the many issues requiring action that can come up at a so-called retreat.  For example, one of those topics provided for a surprise expenditure estimated at $40,000 to remedy a problem at the water plant that could have been catastrophic, if not taken care of. Do voters not deserve the opportunity to hear about the problem and its $40,000 surprise solution?

Blowing Rock’s citizens deserve transparency not just in decisions made or votes taken, but in the deliberations leading to those decisions.

It is not yet clear whether or not the Board of Commissioners and Mayor will again at least delay any decisions until they can be truly made in public. We hope that is again the case.  The voters of Blowing Rock deserve transparency, and while that is mostly being withheld from them in terms of the discussions that might lead to a decision, at the very least the Commissioners should be public with the way they vote on any decision.

Many companies send their management teams on faraway, even exotic places for retreats. But there is a difference between corporations and municipalities. Private sector executives are accountable to their shareholders, who can vote by buying or selling shares of stock they might own if the company is publicly traded.  Municipal boards are accountable to their citizens, who can only vote intelligently if they fully know the issues and where the candidates — including the incumbents — stand on those issues.

Other municipalities stage retreats for their Town Council members, some even venture to a Blowing Rock resort from a faraway town or city. But those retreats are very different than to what Blowing Rock’s retreat has evolved. First, the retreat may be held around a certain theme, such as Raleigh’s town council a few years ago when they went to Charlotte for a couple of days to study light rail and mass transit solutions. The rest of the time was spent listening to department head reports and asking questions of those managers, NOT making decisions.

Those retreats are very different than to what the Blowing Rock retreat in January has been allowed to evolve over time.

In fact, Blowing Rock News studied the minutes of approximately 100 towns and cities’ retreats last year. Some were centered around exploring a specific theme, like Raleigh. Others conducted team-building exercises and encounter group sessions so that the individual commissioners and town council members might get to know one another better and create more productive working relationships. In less than three percent (3%) of the North Carolina retreats we studied did those elected boards make ANY decisions, or even have substantive discussions about issues facing the town other than the specific theme around which it was organized.

In January 2018, Blowing Rock News attended the Town Council’s retreat in Asheville. Our three stories were among the most read of the year, so there is documented interest in what is done.  Just like in 2018, Blowing Rock News will be there again. We won’t be playing golf, going to the movies, or eating at a fancy restaurant. We will again be writing stories about what was discussed. And we are going on our own nickel. It is as close as we can get, this year, to Town Council transparency. It is still not enough and Blowing Rock deserves better.

Town Council Retreat Topics 2019 (as communicated to us by email on January 9th)

  • Parking – Hiring a parking consultant, parking kiosk for Main Street, Shuttle service 2019 route, possible land acquisition for parking (Departments involved: Police Department, Planning Department, Council)
  • Board Appointments – Planning Board (2 vacancies), Board of Adjustment (3 vacancies), ABC Board (1 vacancy), TDA (2 vacancies), BRAAC (1 vacancy)
  • Town Manager Hiring Process – timeline, discussion on building a strong/positive working relationship with the new Town Manager (Departments involved: Council)
  • Art Policy – Review policy, discuss and decision on a Final Art Policy (Departments involved: Council and BRAAC)
  • Clean Energy – Discussion on a plan going forward to implement the adopted Clean Energy Resolution and start adding solar panels and electric charged vehicles. (Departments involved: Council)
  • Financial – Establishing a Water/Sewer Capital account for additional taps, Establishing a repaving account, Acceptance of Credit Cards (Fee) (Departments involved: Council, Manager and Finance)
  • Department Discussions – Parks and Recreation- landscaping, implementation of Virginia Tech plan (Memorial Park, Old Fire House, American Legion), 2019 Plan, Size of the Department – (Is it too large for one department); Public Works – Review; Planning and Inspections – enforcement on fining occupancy tax violators (STR – Short Term Rentals), Discussion on fining residents violating ordinances, Council being kept updated on Zoning violations and making Boards aware when changes have been made to meeting agendas, Land use planning to help protect developing on Highway 321/Valley Blvd; Financial – discussion of actual impact on property taxes in relation to borrowing monies, Fire Department – Update on disaster plan in case of a forest fire; Discussion of Blowing Rock/Watauga County relations; ambulance (Fire Department), sales (Finance), SRO and Communications discussion (Police Department)
  • Engineering – Bass Lake Sidewalk update, Design/implementation of the entrance to Sunset Drive discussion, open discussion on matters relating to McGill, MOA relating to underground utilities on 321 (Valley Blvd), Main Street and Sunset Drive and Sunset Drive construction and time line; was discussed at the December Meeting – what further needs to be discussed (Departments involved: Engineering), Hiring a PE consult (Departments involved: Council)
  • Auto Water Meter – Update on the plan from Blue Ridge Electric (Departments involved: Public Works and Finance Officer)
  • Miscellaneous – Establishing a Dog Park discussion, Discussion of attracting businesses/developments for end of life residences, How to attract year-round families, Agenda organization (input) (Council)
  • Council Goals – Six-month goals, One year goals – Discussion (Council)

We’ll not get into any of these topics in this opinion piece. We’ll wait and see what transpires at the retreat and report on these topics from Asheville each night.

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