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Keep office talks public

Whereas the public bodies that administer the legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, and advisory functions of North Carolina and its political subdivisions exist solely to conduct the people’s business, it is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly.
N.C. General Statutes
T he majority of Rowan County commissioners want another 60 days for their board and the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education to consider plans for the schools’ new central office on South Main Street. Let’s hope we’re in for 60 days of open talks that the public can take part in and witness.
New commission chairman Jim Sides now has an opportunity to lead the way. It’s one thing to insist on having financial data readily available on the county’s website — something Sides has successfully championed — and quite another to handle negotiations with another board diplomatically and in the open.
One-on-one conversations among board members are legal. That’s how Sides’ quick election as chairman came about Monday. It was worked out in advance. But negotiating one-on-one or two-by-two with the Board of Education would be a clear attempt to skirt the spirit of the open meetings law. Posting county employee salaries online is an empty, hypocritical gesture when important deliberations are going on in secret. When he talks to other officials or in public, Sides is now speaking as chairman of the county commission. His actions will set the tone for the rest of the board for openness or for secrecy. The board and all its committees — including ad hoc groups appointed by Sides to investigate issues — are subject to the open meetings law.
Obviously, that goes for City Council and Mayor Paul Woodson, as well. They would like to meet with the school board, too — and perhaps they should be part of this meeting between commissioners and the school board. Certainly any talks that go on between City Council and the school board should be announced beforehand and open to the public, just like any other public meeting.
There was mention at Monday’s commission meeting of getting the boards together without “special interests” being present. In a radio call-in Tuesday morning, Vice Chairman Craig Pierce also called for hashing things out without special interests or the media present. That’s a red flag and another reason to be glad North Carolina has a strong open meetings law. Whatever it is that Sides, Pierce and others want to say to the school board, they should say it in public — in front of the Tea Party, the Chamber of Commerce, a church congregation, Downtown Salisbury or whoever else decides to show up. They are all voters and taxpayers, and they have a right to know what commissioners are up to.

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