When elected officials conduct their business in the sunshine of public scrutiny, their constituents can have full faith and trust that the decisions made are aboveboard, well-considered and in the best interest of the general public. At the local level, maximizing the public’s access to government empowers communities and builds leaders. Over the last couple of months, the Asheville/Buncombe Policy Institute has produced a pair of policy proposals designed to show our elected officials how to offer the benefits of open government to all.
With the campaigns for seats on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners now under way, accountability and transparency are emerging as central issues. Whether it was the secret meetings with Progress Energy or the suspicious sale of public land adjacent to City/County Plaza to a private developer, our county government has demonstrated the need for more openness in its deliberations. One commissioner has stated that the board knows how it’s going to vote before they go into any public meeting. This sort of backroom decision-making creates the impression that secrets are being kept or that elected officials would prefer not to be accountable to their constituents. An unwillingness to investigate failures like the ones that played out in the suspicious Parkside Condominiums deal only furthers that impression.
In the Parkside case, the county sold public land to a private developer without a public hearing. About six months after the sale, the county itself assessed the property at almost twice the sale price. There were also questions about whether the land could legally be sold to private interests. And the developer claims that he had private meetings with city staff. Yet when the public became aware of the murkiness on display in this fishy land deal, the commissioners made no effort to investigate their failure. Instead, David Gantt famously said, “We screwed up,” and that was the end of it as the county kicked this dubious can down to City Council.
The Asheville/Buncombe Policy Institute’s transparency proposal for the Board of Commissioners begins:
“All meetings of any board or commission of any county agency or authority at which official acts are to be taken are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, and no resolution, rule, or formal action shall be considered binding except as taken or made at such meeting. In addition, any meeting at which any two public officials or their surrogates convene concerning a subject upon which official action is foreseeable are also declared to be public meetings. The board or commission must provide notice of all such meetings as described in North Carolina General Statutes 143_318.10.”
Under transparent government, the shady Parkside deal would have had a public hearing instead of being inserted into the consent agenda. Under transparent government, there would be a public record of meetings between a developer and city staff regarding future land deals. Commissioners would seek answers to determine how and why their system had failed to protect public land, and city officials would make sure all the facts were in before cutting any deals.
Transparency transcends partisanship, enabling people on various corners of the political street to come together in demanding that their government operate in the sunshine. When citizens on the right, left and center come together to call for more openness in government, it is incumbent upon elected representatives to respond to that call. Building trust in the workings of government is a responsibility of elected officials, even when operating openly is less comfortable than doing things behind closed doors. Openness provides a safeguard against the specter of corruption while ensuring that the people’s expertise is employed in solving local problems.
The charges against former Sherriff Bobby Medford, depicting a dark underworld of gambling and racketeering, constitute a cautionary tale. While the majority of public officials do their level best to maintain high ethical standards, a system that encourages secrecy will inevitably encourage errors in judgment. Without accountability and oversight, people in positions of power are more likely to make big mistakes and wield their power irresponsibly.
Integrating the highest possible standards of transparency into our local government operations will create a culture of confidence. The equation is fairly simple: More transparency creates more credibility and accountability, while less transparency creates suspicion and opportunity for mischief. By ensuring that government business is given full public scrutiny, government documents are available in timely ways, and the principle of openness is paramount, the Asheville and Buncombe County electorate can have full faith and trust in the integrity of the decisions made by their government. The alternative is more backroom deals, secret meetings, unanswered questions—and a cynical electorate without recourse beyond the ballot box.
You can find both the policy institute’s proposed government-transparency policies for both Asheville and Buncombe County on the institute’s blog: www.abpinstitute.blogspot.com.
[Local blogger, activist and community organizer Gordon D. Smith lives in West Asheville. He is a child-and-family therapist.]