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Public’s business belongs in public

North Carolina law and common sense regarding the function of a democratic society require that discussions by our elected officials, even the Lincolnton City Council, be conducted in open session.
A few exceptions — we would say too many — are allowed under North Carolina law. Even so, in no case do those exceptions ever include taking action in closed session. Yet the City Council erred twice in this regard during last week’s meeting.
Certain issues can be discussed in closed session. But statutes are clear in requiring that actions, even regarding matters that can be discussed away from the eyes and the ears of the people, be taken in open session for all to see. Board members must stand up and be counted. To do otherwise is an offense against the citizens who have a right to know what their government is up to, so that they can vote more intelligently.
The City Council acted inappropriately in voting on City Manager Jeff Emory’s contract during closed session, though it’s not clear that members had any improper intent. Regardless, we urge the city to redress this situation by issuing a statement to local news media explaining the breakdown of votes.
The second error in acting during closed session is far more serious because it also appears to be an effort to silence critics. The council determined to issue a letter to a local media website, The Carolina Scoop, apparently protesting statements about Emory from the site’s owner, Jon Mayhew, who has alleged that the city manager is too involved in city politics.
Yes, council members were talking with their attorney, which is sometimes allowed in closed session. But there’s no reason to think this is one of those times. The law requires that the members specify which exceptions to open meetings laws are being applied when they go into closed session. It’s not enough to close the meeting, saying they’re going to discuss Emory’s contract, and then do whatever else they want.
“I cannot fathom any basis for that having been discussed in closed session,” advised Amanda Martin, chief counsel for the North Carolina Press Association, as she wrote to the Times-News about the matter last week.
Council members’ motives are unclear, precisely because the council acted wrongly and held this discussion in closed session. Since they did discuss and act in closed session, no one else knows on exactly what grounds their planned letter to Scoop publisher Jon Mayhew would protest his comments. Did they actually think he libeled the city manager or are they just trying to push Mayhew around? Either way, they’d be smarter and better stewards of taxpayer dollars if they just left this alone.
Mayhew has alleged that Emory has gotten too involved in partisan city politics and should instead be neutral. Mayhew also has played gotcha with photos appearing to show Emory didn’t have his hand on the Bible while being sworn in for a specific hearing.
As it happens, the Times-News has frequently criticized Mayhew’s reporting on a number of issues. We don’t find that the swearing-in issue he’s raised has much merit. But if Mayhew wants to make this argument, he’s entitled to do so. As for the more general claim that Emory favors one faction on the board, Mayhew is far from the only one in town making that claim. It’s clear that the two Democratic council members who recently won re-election, Larry Mac Hovis and Dr. John “Les” Cloninger, have consistently provided the bulk of support for Emory in contract votes going back to at least 2008 when they were joined by former Mayor David Black in breaking a tie to give Emory a sizable increase in compensation. It’s no secret that Republican City Council candidate Tim Shain was critical of that vote, even commenting on it in his campaign ads. It’s also no secret that Emory played a prominent role during efforts to disqualify Shain after his apparent win in the 2009 election. Is Emory involved in city politics and is that inappropriate? It’s something people have a right to debate.
In commissioning a letter to Mayhew, the council risks going from improper meeting conduct to trampling on the First Amendment. The people and the news media, including Mayhew, have the right to express opinions about public officials. The City Council cannot legally take action, in open or closed session, to abridge that right. The city has better things to do with the public’s money than to pay the city attorney to harass the local news media. If council members disagree with Mayhew, they’d be smarter to just ignore him.
But whatever the council does, it needs to be done where everyone can see it. Let’s conduct the public’s business in public.

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