Agencies getting county money now must open records, meetings

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
Any agency or non-profit organization getting $5,000 or more in public funds from Rowan County will now have to open its records and its meetings under a new policy adopted this week by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
The policy also includes a provision that makes it a conflict of interest for the board or agency to do business with any member of its board of directors.
County commissioners voted unanimously Monday to approve the policy, which ties funding to compliance with the N.C. Open Meetings law and a modified version of the state’s public records law.
Commissioners Jim Sides and Jon Barber developed the one-page policy in consultation with County Attorney Jay Dees.
The policy came after Rowan Jobs Initiative, a non-profit group which received $325,000 from the county to attract industry, initially refused to allow county commissioners to review its records.
The county cut funding for the organization after learning the Jobs Initiative had contracted with Miller Davis Studios while Mike Miller, the firm’s owner, was on the Jobs Initiative board of directors.
Miller and Jobs Initiative directors said there was no conflict and argued Miller saved the agency money through placement of advertisements in national site-selection publications.
Since that time, Jobs Initiative officials have allowed commissioners to review records in the presence of the organization’s directors.
Discussing the policy Monday evening, Sides said commissioners looked at several policies from other counties.
The committee also looked at concerns of some charitable organizations that feared taking public money would open up all of their records to the public.
“We agreed that was a little much to ask,” Sides said.
The new policy specifies that any organization not subject to the N.C. Public Records law will make documents available within 30 days of a formal written request from a duly elected and sitting county commissioner.
Chairman Arnold Chamberlain tried but failed to win support to change that provision so that it would require the request come from a majority vote of the Board of Commissioners.
“I don’t believe this issue will ever arise again,” Sides said.
Barber, who joined Sides in recommending the policy, noted their aim was to keep it simple and avoid making it cumbersome.
Here is a brief version of the four provisions:
– Agencies receiving county money must publish a schedule of regular meeting dates in the newspaper at least once a year.
– They must make documents available to a county commissioner. The materials include financial documents, minutes of meetings, financial audits and related materials.
The Board of Commissioners reserves the right to request a financial audit of any board, agency or non-profit organization which receives $25,000 or more in funding any fiscal year.
– The agencies agree to provide two written reports annually to the Board of Commissioners justifying the appropriation of county funds.
– It shall be considered a conflict of interest to appropriate any funds for the purpose of contracting for either services or the purchase of goods from any currently sitting board of directors member, unless the Board of Commissioners is notified in writing in advance of the specifics and given a chance to comment.
Failure to disclose such conflicts or abide by other terms of the policy will result in automatic loss of funds.