The public’s business

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Section 1. Board members should obey all laws applicable to their official actions as members of the board. Board members should be guided by the spirit as well as the letter of the law in whatever they do.
— Code of Ethics for the Board of Commissioners of Rowan County, N.C.
Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber should pay for whatever copies he printed on county equipment for personal use, if indeed he did what fellow commissioners say.
Ink and paper add up.

So do incidents that cause voters to distrust the people they elect to public office. And in that regard, commissioners should look beyond what they might find in trash cans and recycling bins and instead peer into the mirror. Are they guided by the spirit of the open meetings law as they conduct the public’s business?
Or are they deliberately excluding the public from discussion of important county matters, sliding controversial items into consent agendas and hiding behind wrongly identified exclusions to the open meetings law?
The subject is so important that the Code of Ethics devotes an entire section to it.
Section 5. Board members should conduct the affairs of the board in an open and public manner. They should comply with all applicable laws governing open meetings and public records, recognizing that doing so is an important way to be worthy of the public’s trust. They should remember when they meet that they are conducting the public’s business. They should also remember that local government records belong to the public and not to the board members or their employees.
In order to ensure strict compliance with the laws concerning openness, board members should make clear that an environment of transparency and candor is to be maintained at all times in the governmental unit. They should prohibit unjustified delay in fulfilling public records requests. They should take deliberate steps to make certain that any closed sessions held by the board are lawfully conducted and that such sessions do not stray from the purposes for which they are called.

Even the January closed session in which commissioners first discussed Barber’s use of the copier is questionable. State law says such discussions should be held in open session.
“A public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting,” state law says.
County Attorney Jay Dees says commissioners went into closed session to get his legal advice on the matter. It would seem they left out an important step: bringing the issue up in the open in the first place.
Even more dubious is the commission’s “closed” session as members walked through Salisbury Mall last week, with the mall manager leading the way and remaining privy to their discussion.
Barber says the board’s interest in his copier use is political payback, something else the Code of Ethics condemns. If he has used a significant amount of county materials, that point may be moot.
But keep the entire Code of Ethics in mind. It contains not a word about county copiers, but the code is clear about openness: “board members should make clear that an environment of transparency and candor is to be maintained at all times in the governmental unit.”
Who do you think is violating the Code of Ethics?