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Josh Bergeron: Government transparency can always improve

Closed sessions are simply a fact of life for governmental bodies. If you haven’t witnessed a board going into closed session, you simply haven’t attended enough meetings.

Lately, the Rowan County Commission’s agenda contained one closed session a week. The most recent ones concerned the former Salisbury Mall, now West End Plaza. Before that, there were a couple of closed sessions pertaining to hiring Aaron Church as the new county manager.

As for the Salisbury Mall — discussed in closed session to decide whether to appeal the denial of a special use permit — the reasoning for a closed session is murky. As justification for the closed sessions, the county pointed to attorney-client privilege. The section of the open meetings law most relevant to the situation states: “The public body may consider and give instructions to an attorney concerning the handling or settlement of a claim, judicial action, mediation, arbitration, or administrative procedure.”

The special use permit appeal falls within the allowed uses of closed sessions, but that discounts an important point which holds true in nearly every executive or closed session situation. Even if permitted by law, closed sessions deprive Rowan County residents of an important facet of good government — transparency.

Situations like hiring a new county manager are more understandable. A certain degree of privacy is required in some personnel matters.

But closed sessions still deprive Rowan County residents of the ability to hear meaningful, valuable conversations about the government they fund. In some situations — one occurred recently — closed sessions last longer than the open portion of the meeting, which might indicate to the public that the discussion in closed session was more meaningful than any of the conversation that occurred in the entire open portion of the meeting.

After the closed session, usually all that the attendees who bothered to stay get to hear is a motion to adjourn. There’s seldom an explanation of what occurred. There’s no motion to take action.

To be clear, closed sessions certainly aren’t limited to the Rowan County Commission. Government bodies all across the nation use closed sessions as a way to discuss sensitive topics.

Louisiana State University, the school where I studied, hired a new president right as I was nearing graduation. When it was time to hire the president, the school only disclosed one name when asked who was considered as finalists. It was as if the school had only seriously considered one person.

More than 30 people applied for the job, so surely more than one person qualified as a finalist. A lawsuit is still ongoing. More than a year after two newspapers were successful in a suit to get the names, the LSU community is still unsure of who the other candidates were. The LSU story is an example government doing an injustice to its citizens.

The story is similar to the Rowan County manager search, except we knew who the two finalists were — Church and former Commissioner Chad Mitchell. We even found out that the vote was tight, with one commissioner changing his vote near the end after previously siding with Mitchell. Commissioners were not required to disclose the names, but they did anyway.

Rowan’s transparency is far from average. In fact, it’s commendable. Just take a look at the county’s website. You’ll find a budget, salaries of every employee and dozens of other public documents.

But transparency can always improve, and perhaps we are already seeing improvement.

The county commissioners made a motion at their most recent meeting to begin discussions with the city about a pending special use permit appeal. At first, the motion may not seem like anything special, but, in asking the new chairman and vice chairman to talk with the city of Salisbury, the county essentially appointed a subcommittee. The new committee is subject to the same rules as a normal body of government.

In the open meetings law, the definition that specifically applies to the new subcommittee states: “As used in this Article, ‘public body’ means any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council, or other body of the State, or of one or more counties, cities, school administrative units, constituent institutions of The University of North Carolina, or other political subdivisions or public corporations in the State that (i) is composed of two or more members and (ii) exercises or is authorized to exercise a legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, or advisory function.”

So, on Friday, a public notice went out announcing a meeting among commission Chairman Greg Edds, Vice Chair Jim Greene, Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson and Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell.

Whatever discussion occurs regarding the special use permit appeal could happen in the open.

The meeting will be on Monday at 3 p.m. at 217 S. Main St. It will literally be the first time that commissioners and city officials have sat down in an open setting to discuss differences over the former Salisbury Mall’s zoning

Perhaps Monday’s meeting is a sign of the future of government in Rowan County.

Josh Bergeron covers county government and politics for the Post.

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