Surrounding government in secrecy?

We wondered, at least for a few hours, if Dobson officials might be reverting to the tricks of an earlier regime there.

Readers may recall in 2008 when we broke a series of stories regarding the Dobson town government, with allegations that the then-town manager was using town funds for personal gain, and there were also allegations some town commissioners were getting a few favors not available to other residents — delaying utility bill payments, having some payments written off, and using town resources for personal or business benefit.

While several then-town commissioners refused to allow their utility bills to become public, the town manager eventually lost her job and ended up going through the criminal justice system, where her case was ultimately decided.

What was most disturbing about that whole matter was an apparent attempt by town commissioners to keep it all from the public, potentially even covering up the manager’s alleged misuse of taxpayer money. Only after The Mount Airy News reported the commissioners were in closed-door sessions trying to figure out how to proceed, and how to keep it from becoming public knowledge, did the board come clean with what was going on.

Why is this relevant today?

Because the board of commissioners seemed to be working hard to keep secrets this week, trying to circumvent the idea of open and transparent government.

At Thursday night’s meeting the board went into a closed session for what it called “personnel” and “legal” matters.

Afterward, the board returned to open session and voted. Only problem is, no one in attendance, other than board members, had a clue what the board voted on.

That’s because the board members refused to say what they were voting on. The motion was something along the lines of “I make a motion we approve what we talked about in closed session.”

When our reporter queried Town Manager Josh Smith and town attorney Hugh Campbell on the vote, rightfully asking what they had discussed and what they had voted, Smith declined to answer, referring questions to Campbell, who had no reply when queried.

Friday The Mount Airy News talked with North Carolina Open Government Coalition attorney Jonathan Jones, who said the action was clearly illegal. He said state code specifically prohibits voting by “reference,” as the town commissioners had done.

Even if the vote had not been illegal, it was clearly wrong, an action that was done in a manner that kept it from the public.

After Mount Airy News reporter Andy Winemiller filed a Freedom of Information Request on Friday with the town to see the minutes from the closed session, and after Campbell talked with Winemiller and learned the paper had consulted with the Open Government Coalition, Town Manager Josh Smith called the paper and explained what the commissioners had voted on, then released a preliminary text of the minutes to Winemiller.

As it turns out, the vote really wasn’t a significant action in relation to the town’s business — it was a relatively minor personnel issue. But any time a government begins acting as if it has something to hide, particularly one with the history that exists in Dobson, alarms begin to sound.

Even without that history, the general public should be able to come in, sit through a meeting, and have a good idea what the board is doing. It shouldn’t take consultation with open government coalitions and filing FOI requests to get the government to simply do its job.

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