As a public official I always found closed session, or “executive” session as we called it, a little bit annoying. I had to get up, go in another room, listen to our city law director stumble through a long-winded explanation and then get in a heated argument with at least one city council member.
Now that I’ve switched roles and report what politicians are doing, I find it even more annoying. It’s not some curiosity on my part that drives this annoyance. Instead, it’s a concern that average taxpayers aren’t included in the meetings.
After all, the taxpayers and voters are the bosses in our form of government. Anything done without their knowledge and input isn’t illegal, but it’s a little like making a decision without including or informing the investors of a company. Residents fund government operations and are always owed an explanation as to the circumstances of any decision made by a public body.
North Carolina law allows for a number of reasons for a closed session. These include legal matters, personnel matters and economic development initiatives.
I have no issue with the first reason. I understand how a conversation regarding a lawsuit or other legal matter might be best kept out of the public light. Sometimes we must simply trust those we have elected to do the right thing.
However, I’m not sure the latter two shouldn’t be in the public eye.
Let’s take economic development, for instance. Should a deal with a company be made without the people knowing the specifics? I also don’t understand why economic development matters should have code names like “Project Surface.”
If a company is asking for some help from the taxpayer bank rolls, then the taxpayer ought to know every facet of a deal. It seems like the name of the company would be an obvious start. I think it’s funny when there’s a public hearing on an economic development matter, but nobody from the public speaks. Why would they? They don’t even know what company officials are discussing.
I hate to bring it up again, but perhaps dropping $100,000 or so on property ought to be something about which the public knows. It might be legal to hire an agent to buy something in secrecy on the taxpayer’s dime. However, that’s not fair to those who are supposed to be running the government — the people.
My biggest issue with closed session here in North Carolina is “personnel.” The law allows officials to discuss an employee’s performance, competence, etc. in closed session.
I have a pretty hard-line attitude regarding this portion of the law. When an individual signs on to a public position, that person, in the case of a county employee, has about 73,000 bosses.
If a department head or another employee is doing a good job, that should be a matter of public record. If that employee is doing a bad job, that, too, should be a matter to which residents are privy.
What I’m getting at is when an individual is working on the public dime, they give up certain rights to privacy.
There is no better example of this than the recent firing of Pilot Mountain Town Manager Amanda Reid. The explanation for Reid’s dismissal was given by the mayor. “The town wants to go in a new direction with a manager with more community involvement,” Dwight Atkins explained.
If I were a resident of Pilot Mountain, that would be an absolutely inexcusable explanation. Here’s a company into which those residents have invested. Then the board of directors fires its CEO, saying “we want to go in a new direction.”
Was Reid incompetent? We may never know. Was Reid doing the wrong thing? It’s unlikely Pilot Mountain residents will ever get that answer.
Perhaps, Reid was doing the right thing, and the Pilot Mountain board didn’t like it. Who knows? That’s a reasonable concern, given the town’s past inability to manage its finances.
It certainly was legal. However, taxpayers are owed an explanation when personnel actions are taken, especially when it involves an individual in a senior-level position. “Moving in a new direction” and “I can not discuss the details of what happens in closed session” aren’t fair answers to taxpayers.
In fact, citizens are owed an explanation of anything and everything a public entity does. I think closed sessions give public officials the ability to forget who the real boss is — the taxpayers.
Andy is a staff writer for The News and can be reached at (336) 415-4698.