February 14, 2016

County board chair: Closed doors or no meeting with school board members

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners is refusing to meet with school leaders Thursday if the media is present.
In an email exchange Tuesday afternoon, Post Editor Elizabeth Cook asked Jim Sides to reconsider his statement that the press would not be allowed at a meeting between him, Vice Chair Craig Pierce, Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education Chair Richard Miller, RSS Vice Chair Kay Wright Norman and others.
Sides said during Monday’s county commission meeting the two delegations would meet in private at 10 a.m. Thursday.
“We can handle a lot of problems behind closed doors,” he said.
The two boards have been working on establishing a new central office for the school system, more than two decades after city and county systems merged. The school board has voted for a downtown site that Sides and others have opposed.
Cook took issue with the closed-door meeting.
“We believe these are public matters that should be discussed in public, with the press allowed to attend,” Cook said in an email to Sides.
“Technically, the group you have appointed to attend the meeting may be considered a subcommittee and required by law to have open meetings,” she said.
Sides turned her down in an email response that he copied to all members of the county commission, the school board and county attorney Jay Dees.
“I must respectfully disagree with your  assertion that I will be in violation of the open meetings law in regards to the meeting I have scheduled for Thursday,” Sides wrote.
“Any two Commissioners may meet at any time to discuss any County issue without being in violation of the law, as long as those two Commissioners have not been appointed as a Committee,” he said. “I purposely did not appoint a Committee. The two School Board members we will meet with do not comprise a majority of their Board, and to my knowledge, they are not an appointed Committee. Mr. Miller, if I am incorrect in this assumption, please let me know immediately, so that we can cancel the meeting.”
An attorney for the N.C. Press Association said Sides is wrong.
“I don’t think the stated sentiments and intentions are consistent with the public policy as established by the legislature” in open-meetings laws, Raleigh attorney Mike Tadych wrote in an email. “The entities involved exist solely to conduct the public’s business. The Open Meetings Law contains no promise of efficiency or lack of friction.”
Tadych referred to the oath county commissioners take to uphold the constitution and laws of the nation and state and said, “Presuming the oath was taken by all commissioners including the chair, the public’s business needs to be conducted within the playing field required by the Legislature.
I agree … that a committee of two can (and does in this case) constitute its own public body which must adhere to the Open Meetings Law,” Tadych wrote.
Miller, chairman of the school board, said Tuesday that he had initiated the meeting between county and school officials and he wanted the press present.
In an email that he also copied to both boards, Miller reminded Sides of the email and phone exchanges the two of them had had about the “joint relational meeting,” and said they had never discussed keeping it a closed session.
“I wanted you to be aware that I have no problem with the press being present at our jointly established meeting, particularly, since Thursday’s meeting was a product of the Board of Education’s directive to me,” Miller said.
Recently appointed school board member L.A. Overcash weighed in Wednesday morning in an email to Sides and copied to all, in support of Miller’s stance.
“Jim as a bystander to these communications I get the impression that there is something to hide from the press,” Overcash said, “as a member of the (Board of Education) I want to keep everything we do in the public eye especially when it concerns public money.”
Overcash said he wouldn’t expect the meeting to cover any confidential information. “I hope you all can have a productive meeting and iron out some of this situation.”
Just after taking over as school board chairman in December, Miller invited the entire county board to attend what he called a meeting of “stakeholders” with the Salisbury City Council to discuss the future of the school system central office.
Sides declined to call a special meeting of his board, saying he doesn’t feel the city, which is donating the land and parking for the project, is a true stakeholder in the process.
Pierce and fellow Commissioner Jon Barber were the only county board members to participate in the joint meeting last week.
During the meeting, the school board and City Council agreed to pursue inter-local financing for the central office project. That would allow the school system to borrow $2 million from the city and $6 million from the county, enough to build a facility large enough to consolidate all Rowan-Salisbury departments.
Sides agreed Monday with a statement by Barber that the joint financing option is a “game changer,” but said he does not intend to discuss the possibility during Thursday’s meeting. Instead, he said he plans to focus on how commissioners and the school board get together in the future and “eliminate a lot of the friction that comes with public meetings where people just don’t seem to be getting along.