The people’s business

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 10, 2013

Irony of ironies. The Rowan County commissioner who once made sure Rowan got an A+ in transparency from the John Locke Foundation now insists on meeting in secret with school leaders — or else he’ll stay away.
Commission Chairman Jim Sides announced Monday he would exclude the press from a meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. today in the County Administration Building. Set to attend are Sides, Vice Chair Craig Pierce, school board Chair Richard Miller, Vice Chair Kay Wright Norman and staff.
“We can handle a lot of problems behind closed doors,” Sides said at Monday’s county commission meeting. That line hardly fits the image Sides has tried to project as a champion of openness. To be fair, he said his goal was to focus on how the two boards can come together and “eliminate a lot of the friction that comes with public meetings….” But that doesn’t relieve him of obeying the state’s Open Meetings Law.
Sides has refused requests to open the meeting from the Post and WBTV reporter David Whisenant. Any two commissioners can meet in private as long as they have not been appointed as a committee, Sides said in an email to the Post and copied to members of both boards. “Mr. Miller, if I am incorrect in this assumption, please let me know immediately, so that we can cancel the meeting.”
Last week Sides stayed away from a joint meeting of the school board and Salisbury City Council to which commissioners were invited. He took offense at some things Miller had been quoted as saying, and said he did not consider the city a stakeholder in the schools’ central office project, even though the city was providing property and parking. Fortunately, two more open-minded commissioners joined the school board and City Council at the table, and another sat in the audience, as city officials agreed to help with $2 million in financing.
Later Sides said he first learned of the meeting in the newspaper and was not properly invited.
Now he intends to call off another meeting if it cannot be private.
The Post contends that the media and the public should be able to attend any such meeting of school and county officials; they are clearly conducting the people’s business. In this case, they are doing so at a crucial time, with the central office project in limbo. The November election brought new faces to both boards, so commissioners are reconsidering a $6 million commitment made a year ago.
At this rate, Sides could delay the central office until another election occurs in two years, when he might get more like-minded people on the school board. But a backlash is building against his leadership.
The more an official insists on secrecy, the more the public wonders what is going on. The Post has known of other two-on-two meetings to which it did not send reporters, but this one raises a red flag. By digging in his heels, Sides makes the central office into an ever-bigger issue, one that demands coverage and openness at every turn. If he has something to share with the school board, he should share it in public.