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.