Public records release sheds light on Council retreat planning

March 2021 Council Retreat
IN THE OPEN: The March 31 team-building session of Asheville City Council's annual retreat was only opened to the public after Mountain Xpress and a coalition of other local media organizations sued the city. Photo by Molly Horak

All things come to those who wait — especially if, as in the case of Mountain Xpress, one waits nearly nine months for public records that state statute requires be delivered “as promptly as possible.”

Xpress made a formal request on March 26 for “all planning materials, documents, emails, invoices and other records” related to Asheville City Council’s then-upcoming retreat, planned for March 31-April 1. And as the meeting approached, the paper and a coalition of other local media organizations sued the city over its plan to conduct much of that retreat in private, which had been announced March 19. (Just two days before the retreat, Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Steve Warren ruled that Asheville was violating state open meetings law and forced the officials to meet publicly.)

The city did not fulfill the records request until Dec. 15, turning over more than 900 emails and dozens of other documents. (The full set of records is available at avl.mx/b4w.) The emails and documents suggest that, even as Council member Kim Roney raised concerns over transparency, other city officials either stayed mum or actively supported the closed-door plan.

Roney first objected to the private meeting in a March 8 email to Mayor Esther Manheimer, City Manager Debra Campbell and Jaime Matthews, an assistant in Campbell’s office. “I think we’re heading in the wrong direction if we’re attempting to find a way to remove ourselves from the public eye because we are a public body. If the intention is to address conflict, I think this will exasperate it and not be easy to mend,” Roney wrote.

Roney subsequently forwarded her message to all other Council members. The only recipient to respond to the email was Antanette Mosley, who replied, “Thanks, Kim.”

Prior to Xpress asking about the closed session plan, the only other transparency-related exchange came March 19 in response to an email to all Council members from Patrick Conant, director of local governmental transparency project Sunshine Request. Manheimer, the lone member to respond, said the private meeting was “for team building, for lack of a better term, and no substantive issues will be discussed.”

City Attorney Brad Branham subsequently messaged Conant to “provide my absolute assurances that neither the Council nor staff have any intention to evade the requirements of the open meetings laws.” Campbell then responded privately to Branham with two words of encouragement: “Go Brad!”

While the records provide little other insight into the city’s internal transparency discussions, they do show that logistical plans for the retreat itself were in flux prior to the event. As late as Feb. 25, Asheville staff members were looking to hold the retreat at an outdoor location, with some suggesting the rooftop of the Asheville Art Museum; according to Matthews with the city manager’s office, Manheimer “had some reservations about having it at a brewery.” Council was also exploring a rapid COVID-19 testing requirement for retreat attendees as late as March 17, but that plan was dropped by the time the meeting was announced.

And the emails demonstrate that Asheville staff spent a great deal of effort determining food for the retreat. At least 110 messages from the records request included “catering” or “lunch” in the subject line. (Both Roney and Council member Sage Turner appear to prefer vegetarian options, Campbell dislikes onions and goat cheese on her salads, and Asheville Police Department Chief David Zack was the only attendee to order barbecued chicken with mashed potatoes.)

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the News Editor of Mountain Xpress, coordinating coverage of Western North Carolina's governments, community groups, businesses and environment. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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