Monday, January 9, 2012

How public is public's business?

In the section of N.C. Open Meetings law that lets elected officials hold closed meetings for personnel matters,  it clarifies an exception:  "A public body may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting."

Does anyone believe the decision to appoint the Rev. Amelia Stinson-Wesley to the District 6 school board seat was made in the open meeting?  Of course not.  Board members made no secret that they were conferring by phone  --  and,  as the meeting time approached,  in small groups clustered in back rooms and halls at the Government Center.

Likewise,  before the board opens its official meeting Tuesday,  members will meet in small groups with interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and other top staff to preview the issues they'll discuss.  It's legal because they're careful to avoid a quorum.

Truth is, all public bodies have discretion to decide how public they'll be  (and our state legislators seem to be exploring new frontiers).  At one extreme,  a board could be so obsessed with openness that every discussion among members and staff would take place in formal public meetings  (which presumably would last days instead of hours).   At the other,  meetings could be brisk vote-counting sessions to formalize decisions made privately.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board,  with three new members,  two new leaders and a new political alignment,  must now decide where to place itself on that spectrum.  There's already been some jostling over that.  After two applicants were nominated for the District 6 seat,  former board Chair Eric Davis made a motion asking that each member explain his or her thinking on the selection.  "The public has a right to know how we made decisions. This is how we build trust,"  he said.  Richard McElrath disagreed,  saying that it demonstrates a lack of trust to compel anyone to explain a vote.

Davis' view prevailed,  and members went around the table talking about why they preferred Stinson-Wesley or David Knoble.

Two years ago,  when five of the nine members were new,  the group spent quite a bit of time talking about how to air views without descending into personal sniping.  They also talked about the challenge of airing strong disagreement,  then rallying around a board decision.

The new group plans to hold its first retreat Jan. 20-21.  How they'll work together and how they'll earn public trust are bound to be discussion topics.  And this time around,  the members who were in the majority in 2009 will be in the minority.

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