From CPP: Asheville City Council blocks public from retreat, says open meetings law does not apply

Brad Branham, city attorney for Asheville, argues the public should not have access to a City Council retreat on Wednesday. WebEx screenshot from hearing, courtesy of Carolina Public Press

By Kate Martin, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.

A coalition of media outlets that includes Carolina Public Press took legal action Monday against the city of Asheville to open a meeting to the public that its attorney says should not be considered a meeting at all.

Buncombe County Special Superior Court Judge Steve Warren will issue his decision Tuesday, and the event in question — a retreat — is currently scheduled to be held Wednesday at the city-owned Harrah’s Cherokee Center -Asheville.

According to provided retreat information, Asheville City Council members will talk with two facilitators hired by the city about “building a solid foundation for success” during the first of a two-day retreat. The session is currently slotted to take five hours.

During Monday’s hearing, Asheville attorney Brad Branham asserted that the retreat should not be considered a meeting at all, rather, an informal gathering — which, he said, is not subject to the state’s open meeting laws.

Branham said the city has the “sacred obligation” to adhere to the open meetings law.

From 2016-19, the city of Asheville held similar retreats, which were all open to the public. In 2020, the team-building portion of the retreat was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is not an attempt to have a closed session,” Branham said. “The statute says a social meeting or other informal assembly or gathering of members does not constitute an official meeting.”

If it were a wedding or other purely social event, she would agree, said Amanda Martin, the attorney for CPP, Mountain Xpress, the (Asheville) Citizen Times and Blue Ridge Public Radio.

“This is clearly not a purely social gathering, nor do we believe that it is in any manner an informal gathering,” Martin said. “I never once invited a facilitator to any social gathering that I had. The facilitators will be paid with public money and the meeting will take place in a public facility — and is all part and parcel of an official retreat.”

Two facilitators paid by the city of Asheville — Nicholas Beamon of One Team Leadership and Kimberly Hunter — will lead council members through the agenda topics.

According to the retreat agenda, City Council members will discuss “strengthening alignment, teamwork and trust,” “forming a success compact,” and “forming working agreements.” The agenda was released to CPP after the hearing concluded. The fact that the retreat has an agenda at all is evidence of the gathering’s formal nature, Martin added.

After the plaintiffs suggested city officials seek the advice of the state attorney general, Branham opted instead to ask the opinion of a UNC School of Government professor with expertise in open meetings law, Frayda Bluestein.

Bluestein opined that the “planned meeting constituted public business that could not be conducted in closed session,” according to the plaintiffs’ complaint.

Bluestein said she and Branham disagreed on their interpretations of law.

“I have my opinion based on statutory provisions, and he has his,” Bluestein said in an email exchange with CPP. “It’s reasonable for the board to go with their attorney’s opinion.”

What if, Judge Warren asked Monday, during the course of the discussion, the facilitator asked about each person’s interesting government work, and someone responded with “I am here because of my interest in housing issues.”

“Is that not of vital interest to the public?” Warren asked.

Branham told the judge that the city would record the session. Martin responded Monday that that was a new offer, not one previously made to the media organizations despite requests.

“Even if we open (the meeting) to the public, they would not be able to participate,” Branham said. “They would only be able to listen.”

He said topics of an “important and private nature” will be discussed as a justification to keep the meeting closed, as well as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the possibility of “someone that could be disruptive” could show up.

Branham said Asheville has four relatively new council members, and the “get to know you” session may include disclosures of information council members would prefer to remain private — questions about one’s siblings, family and background.

“It strains credulity to say it is anything other than public,” Martin said. “If someone runs for public office, they have signed up for a certain amount of public exposure and sometimes scrutiny.”

Judge Warren asked both attorneys to file stipulations of fact with his office. A decision is expected Tuesday, a day before the start of the official retreat.


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11 thoughts on “From CPP: Asheville City Council blocks public from retreat, says open meetings law does not apply

  1. Mike R.

    For crying out loud! Let the ladies have their retreat.
    They can have touchy/feely and trust building exercises and then after lunch sing koombyah and toast “somores”.
    What’s the harm?

    • David M. Gettleman

      I think the retreat should be canceled, and the money allocated for the retreat should go to the razing of the Obelisk!

      • Roger

        The money for following though on the stupid idea of “razing of the Obelisk” could help the homeless, or add funds for reparations the city voted to implement; it could go for a lot of things instead of sanctimonious nonsense politically correct politicians from the extreme left have in mind to force upon the community. Given that this body of secretive politicians were elected to office with only a 12% turnout for the 2020 election is a disgrace they should be talking about…not how “correct” they are in destroying relics from the past. It is now known that the BLM movement have been found to project a brand of racism from within its own ranks [Oh, boy, are any of use surprised?]. Why are righteous members of the “party” not exposing the fact that they are flawed members of the Human Race who each have a backyard that needs to be “cleansed.” Our allies in the West are now waking up to the destructive tactics of the “movement” as leaders in France, Australia, and other countries are telling these activists to keep their “cancel culture” out of their country. Americans from the Center are waking up to the damage this movement is causing, and more and more citizens are registering “Unaffiliated.” Repurpose the Obelisk and start a conversation about bringing the citizens of this community together for constructive action, not the destructive nonsense these member at city council advocate. No wonder there was a dismal 12% turnout for local politics. If anything, the Mayor and her comrads should be discussing the dismal state of electoral politics in the City of Asheville; not righteously advocating for a closed meeting where these silly people can hold hands and congratulate each other for sharing power over those of us who are disgusted with their brand of politics.

        • David Gettleman

          I agree with you 100%. I was being facetious. I was trying to point out that our representatives needed to forgo as will be done by the tax payer.

          • Roger

            Yes, indeed. These unpopular politicians need to forgo their retreat until the issue of “transparency” is settled and they communicate openly to ALL the citizens of Asheville. They’ve already proven that “identity politics” is regressive and destructive; now what they need to do is prove that they can listen and “hear” other voices besides what is heard in their aggrandizing publicity and seen in their moves to retreat into a cocoon or radical politics. It should be obvious to these silly citizens that the taxpayers of Asheville aren’t sacrificing their hard-earned monies so that the failed “leaders” of this group can take sides and make every effort to keep the citizens divided over the “original sin” which in truth every individual in this nation, no matter what party they might belong to, is in some measure responsible for, contributing to “racism” and its ugly legacy. Blaming it all upon the Whites of the South is regressive and counterproductive, and unAmerican! These individuals could use a history lesson for the untold truth about the Civil War [sometimes referred to as that “Unnecessary War”]. How anyone [especially a divisive politician] can live a public life being so sanctimoniously righteous is troubling and corrosive to the community spirit.

          • Roger

            From my view, these politicians should cancel their “closed-door” retreat and reverse the divisive decision to destroy a relic from the past by repurposing the obelisk at Pack Square. This would be a unifying move to redeem their unwise actions and it would help to unite the community and improve voter turnout in the next election cycle. The Mayor has the chance to rescue her legacy, if only she will act to rectify what “identity politics” has done to cause unnecessary pain and destruction to the citizens of Asheville and the residents of Buncombe County..

    • Peter Robbins

      Exceptions to open-meeting laws should be narrowly construed, Mike R. It’s serious business. Once they go behind closed doors, they’re on the honor system to tell you what tunes they sang and whether they improvised any of the lyrics.

    • Mike

      “let the ladies” followed by the rest of our comment- maybe you weren’t intending this, reads super misogynistic. No, I’m not being sensitive. It does.

    • Mike R.

      After learning more about the agenda, I withdraw my comments. I thought the “retreat” was only involving getting to know each other and exercises designed to build trust and empathy. Have seen this kind of stuff in corporate settings for years. Stunned to learn it also involved setting priorities for the City (public business). Who in their right minds would call this a justified private setting with public priorities to be dsicussed. Manheimer and Bradham ….what are they thinking?

  2. Peter Robbins

    Well done, Carolina Public Press, Mountain Xpress, the Citizen Times and Blue Ridge Public Radio. I hope this is remembered when it’s time for newspaper and media associations to hand out their public-service awards.

  3. Dave G

    The problem with our representatives in the City and County, is they have on what I call “Progressive Blinders”. This comes from the blinders worn by pulling horses so they only look forward and not to the sides. These blinders prevent the representatives from seeing all aspects of the problem. They only see the “agenda” that is in front of them. They see nothing else.

    This whole fiasco with the obelisk, is a mockery from the get go. From the biased committee to determine the fate of the obelisk, to the failed shroud, to the estimated $114,000.00 to raze the obelisk (I am impressed we have that kind of money laying around to be used on something that in reality will benefit no one). In other words, a waste of money that could be used for a beneficial cause, such as providing school supplies for needy students.

    I am a liberal, and I’m proud of it. The one thing I have, that seems to be lacking in “Progressives”, is common sense.

    And they want a closed door retreat. I don’t trust them to make policy! They are a bunch of politicians that want to continue their biased agendas. If they do go on retreat, we ought to lock them out of “our” City Building, to prevent them from doing more “STUPID”.

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