Judge rules City Council retreat must be open to media, public

FACE TO FACE: Asheville City Council’s upcoming annual retreat will be the first time several members meet in person. Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Steve Warren ruled all portions of the two-day session must be open to the media and the public. Screen capture from a March 23 Council meeting courtesy of the city of Asheville

Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Steve Warren has ruled that Asheville City Council’s upcoming annual retreat is an official meeting and therefore must be open to the media and the public. 

The decision comes after a coalition of media outlets, including Mountain Xpress, took legal action to block the city of Asheville from holding a five-hour closed door meeting devoted to “strengthening personal relationships, teamwork and communication required to do meaningful work together” on Wednesday, March 31. 

“Closing the team-building session would have subtly altered the process of city government and diminished Council’s transparency,” says Xpress publisher Jeff Fobes. “It’s little mistakes like this one the city was about to make that can accumulate into big errors down the road.”

At a March 29 hearing, City Attorney Brad Branham argued the retreat’s team building session did not rise to the level of an official meeting. Amanda Martin, the attorney representing the Citizen Times, Blue Ridge Public Radio, Carolina Public Press and Xpress, objected to Branham’s claims, arguing the gathering was in violation of the state’s open meetings law. 

“This is clearly not a purely social gathering, nor do we believe that it is in any manner an informal gathering,” Martin said during the hearing. She went on to note that the sessions in question would occur at a public facility and would employ two facilitators paid for with public money. 

Records provided to Xpress on March 30 in fulfillment of a public records request included a draft contract for one of the facilitators, Nicholas Beamon of Charlotte, which showed a consulting fee of $8,000 plus expenses for the two-day session. The draft contract for the other facilitator, Kimberly Hunter of Asheville, did not include a fee, but the form used was for expenditures between $5,000 and $30,000.

A copy of the retreat’s agenda was shared with media coalition partners after the hearing concluded. Sessions intended to be held in private included discussions to “strengthen alignment, teamwork and trust,” “forming a success compact” and “creating working agreements.” 

Xpress first reported concerns over the proposed retreat on March 26. After consultation with UNC School of Government professor and open meeting expert Freyda Bluestein, Branham told Xpress the city would move forward with the private “getting to know you” sessions as planned. Bluestein, however, shared a different opinion.

“It seems to me that this is an official meeting. This is a retreat of the board, specifically aimed at the behavior and relationships among the board as they do the work of the city,” she wrote in an email. 

The retreat will run from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 31, and from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. on Thursday, April 1, at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville. No public comment will be taken. 

With public attendance now permitted, the proceedings will no longer be livestreamed on the city of Asheville’s public engagement hub, the city announced in a 3 p.m. email. Instead, a video of the sessions will be uploaded to the city’s YouTube channel by 5 p.m. on Friday, April 2. 

 

Editor’s note: At 8:27 a.m. on March 31, the city announced it would livestream portions of the City Council retreat but not the team-building session.

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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13 thoughts on “Judge rules City Council retreat must be open to media, public

  1. cecilbothwell

    What?
    I mean, “What?”
    When I was on Council we strictly avoided “quorum” meetings. Never in private. Never at functions. If, somehow, 4 or more were at an event, we made sure to not co-locate. This is really bizarre.

    • Also Curious

      The article does say that this is an annual retreat — Cecil, were there no retreats when you were on council? How long has this annual retreat been going on? How is this the first year that this is raising red flags?

    • Mike R.

      When I first read about the retreat and purpose, it seemed viable that it could be private based on what was stated. However, what was stated was NOT what was discussed/intended. This meeting should never have been proposed private. I still can’t believe Manheimer even proposed such and Bradham supported that. What are these people thinking?

  2. Curious

    How much private interaction are City Council members allowed to have? One to one in person? One to one over the telephone? May three members meet informally over coffee and discuss business, as long as no policy decisions are made?
    A member needs to assess how much support among her colleagues there is for an idea/proposal she’s developing. How does she do this?

    • Virginia Daffron

      They may meet privately in groups of up to three (no quorum). All communications such as texts and emails are considered public record unless they deal with information that is exempted from public records requirements.

  3. Old Gloria

    Perception matters. Follow the rules all other councils have followed. As a first ever all female council you’re not helping our cause with this bullshit. Waa waa.

    • Roger

      Something not only “smells” rotten, but the image of the city itself “looks” rotten. That this civic body would go against the citizens of Buncombe County and its County Seat to decide upon removing a Richard Sharpe Smith-designed structure from the public square because it offends White politicians who think it’s their duty to chastise the present population for the sins of their forebears is not only insane, but it is downright regressive! How dare you preach to the White citizens of the County, at large, as if there has been no progress in the hearts and minds of the population, and preach down to us as if we are different than Whites anywhere else in this Nation who have altogether been slow in recognizing systemic racism. The Mayor has been at odds with the population by shaking her index finger at those of us who also recognize the sins of the past [which, by the way, are the sins of the nation itself and for all Whites everywhere, North, South, East and West]. Honestly, that you would mount your White Horse and proclaim that you are here to punish the present White population of Buncombe County and any within City Limits who hold racist attitudes has got to be the absolute epitome of hypocrisy. This original sin belongs to the entire population of Whites in this nation, not just for a select guilty group of them you seem so sanctimoniously righteous in punishing. I say, Stop Your Civil War nonsense, and let’s get on with taking appropriate action that heals us of this sinful past and encourages constructive action for the future of ALL the citizens of the County and its County Seat. Council member Sandra Kilgore is a leader who has been wrongly criticized by other members of Council for going against the hateful, emotional acts of the other members. Thank goodness Judge Warren has ruled to halt at least one wrongful move by the present council members. Now, let’s hope for another rule that will reverse the insane decision by this body to remove the obelisk at Pack Square, which from my observation a majority of the citizens are against. The majority have expressed a view that this granite monument should remain and be repurposed for the future.

  4. Cecil Bothwell

    I would have to differ per the monument, I think there’s general support for removal. Unfortunately, under NC state law we can’t put it to a public vote. (There are very strict limits to what issues can be put on a ballot in this state.)

    • Roger

      I had refrained from commenting upon the input you previously offered; but it is well known that you are one of the most radical supporters of the removal of the Pack Square obelisk. In fact, it is know that you kicked off your last reelection campaign with this absurd, offensive aim. No doubt, you have focused your local political career upon controversial issues and have projected one of the most sanctimonious, righteous attitudes toward governance. As an Illinois “outsider” to the City, you have taken every opportunity to “push the envelope” toward the longstanding “American” problem we call our “original sin.” Your strategy, former councilman, was to “divide and conquer.” But your hateful, righteous campaign backfired because you blew your own cover to reveal that you are like so many other “career” politicians, especially those who will lie, fabricate half-truths, and play dirty for your own personal gain. And the most ironic aspect of your failure is that you went to war with a local Black leader when she opposed your candidacy. It is those like you who have corrupted the Democrat Party to the point that citizens are leaving it to become Unaffiliated and in question about why the “Left” will do anything it has to do to win and to make sure that outside voices are squelched. You and I have clashed in the past because of your dishonesty, and because you went out of your way to belittle the senior communities at Battery Park Senior and Vanderbilt Apartments, and you did so for pure political gain. You, in fact, attempted to take credit for the 3,500 signatures our communities collected for our “Stop the Deck” campaign, which Petition called for “A Park at Haywood Street.” I ask here publicly, as our Committee has done so in writing: “What did you do with the petitions that were entrusted to you to properly present to Council.” Where are they, mr. councilman? You are a rascal who will do anything for attention, and for personal gain, including lie, cheat, and steal. You don’t care about Asheville! You care about Cecil Bothwell and a notoriety that in truth does not serve the citizens of Asheville. That is why former allies of yours withdrew their support once they woke up to see just how regressive you and your brand of politics truly is. You’re wrong about your differing view, because that’s what you choose to believe. A majority of the people in our community want the Obelisk repurposed; not destroyed. The designer, architectural legend Richard Sharpe Smith, deserves better than an “outsider” whose views are backward and regressive.

      • bsummers

        If you hit the ‘enter’ key occasionally between sentences, you start a new paragraph.

      • Peter Robbins

        Here’s an even better way: Go to the end and hold down the backspace key.

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