By Sally Kestin, Asheville Watchdog
The Asheville City Council this week may end its secretive “check-in” meetings that critics say violate the spirit of a state law meant to ensure elected officials conduct the public’s business in the open.
The council is set to vote Tuesday on an item, embedded in a section of the agenda reserved for noncontroversial matters, to begin holding “work sessions” that are open to the public.
The change follows an in-depth look at check-ins last month by Asheville Watchdog and objections from city residents dating back more than a year.
“It’s about time,” said Nina Tovish, who unsuccessfully ran for the council in 2022 and advocated for open meetings. “But I’m concerned that it was only over time and with ongoing pressure . . . that this change is possible.”
For at least five years, Council members have met in regularly scheduled private check-ins with city staff on pending and upcoming business – meetings that are outside of public view. By limiting each session to two Council members and the mayor, the city avoids the requirements of the state’s open meetings law; no recordings are made, no minutes taken.
City residents have complained the meetings sow distrust, and Council candidates have run on promises of more transparency, but check-ins continued.
Last month, Asheville Watchdog detailed the practice after the public was denied access to check-ins on one of the city’s worst crises in recent memory: the December water outage that left thousands without water for days.
Cop shortages, baseball and plastics ban
Council had routinely used check-ins to discuss other topics of vital public interest, including homeless encampments and shelters, development projects, and the city’s proliferation of hotels, according to agendas, the only public record of the meetings.
More recent check-in agendas, provided to Asheville Watchdog through a public records request, show the council has discussed the makeup of the independent committee reviewing the water outage, an initiative to reduce the use of plastic bags, and staff shortages at the Asheville Police Department. Minor league baseball and McCormick Field, which needs $30 million in upgrades to keep the Asheville Tourists from leaving, have appeared on at least three agendas since September.
Check-ins are relatively rare, Asheville Watchdog found. Raleigh has a similar process, but other city councils and local governments in North Carolina hold work sessions attended by all members that are open to the public.
The agenda for Tuesday’s Asheville council meeting includes a resolution to add “briefing work sessions” to the 2023 meeting schedule. The work sessions would replace private check-ins, Mayor Esther Manheimer confirmed Saturday.
Patrick Conant, an Asheville software developer and open-government advocate, called it a positive step brought on by more public awareness of check-ins and Asheville Watchdog’s “reporting of how Council was briefed and made decisions” during the water outage.
“There was a crisis, and Council’s response, in my opinion, didn’t look very good,” Conant said. “The fact that they used check-ins only furthered concerns around communication and public trust.”
Tovish said she wants “to believe that council members are now committed to doing their deliberations in public.”
But the Council, she said, has “an accountability deficit that has been built up over years, and it’s just difficult to flip a switch and say, ‘Oh, yay, now everything will be above board.’
“One wonders,” Tovish said, “whether there will continue to be meetings that happen, essentially off the books.”
‘Raw and more candid’
Council members have defended check-ins, saying they provide a valuable opportunity to become informed and ask questions about topics ahead of public meetings without fear of public backlash.
“I feel like we can be a little raw and more candid,” Council member Sheneika Smith said during a discussion of whether to continue check-ins at the March 2022 annual retreat. “But when we’re in public, ‘lights, camera, action,’ you want to appear refined and knowledgeable.”
“Everybody is normally pretty guarded,” Smith said, “because we’re under the public eye.”
North Carolina law requires all official meetings of a public body, defined as a “majority of the members,” to be open to the public and minutes recorded.
By breaking into groups of two Council members plus the mayor, Asheville’s check-ins do not constitute a quorum and therefore, according to the city attorney, are not official meetings.
Three separate 90-minute check-ins are held the Thursday before a Tuesday council meeting, each session covering the same agenda and the same material.
By taking up nearly a full day of city staff time, the meetings are inefficient, critics contend. And open-government advocates say they appear designed to evade the intent of the open meetings law.
“They tip-toe up to the line,” Brooks Fuller, executive director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, told Asheville Watchdog.
New majority supports change
Mayor Manheimer told Asheville Watchdog last month that she would like to switch to public work sessions but until then had not had the support of a majority of the Council.
The Watchdog polled Council members and found that with the addition of the newest member, Maggie Ullman Berthiaume, that had changed. Four of the seven, including the mayor, said they supported a switch to work sessions.
The public may not hear much at Tuesday’s meeting about why the council is finally making the change or who supports it.
The topic is part of the consent agenda, which means it could be approved along with other unrelated items without discussion or a separate vote.
“No one really has to go on the record about it,” said Tovish, the former Council candidate.
A consent agenda is typically reserved for routine, noncontroversial matters expected to easily pass. Tovish suspects Council members came to agreement on ending check-ins during a check-in.
“Did they come to this decision through some kind of internal vote?” she said. “Of course, we don’t know.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email email@example.com.