Editor’s note, 6:03 p.m. March 29: A media coalition of Asheville Citizen Times, Blue Ridge Public Radio, Carolina Public Press, Asheville Watchdog and Mountain Xpress has asked a court to weigh in on the Asheville City Council’s plan to hold a 6 ½-hour closed-door meeting devoted to “strengthening personal relationships, teamwork and communication required to do meaningful work together” on Wednesday, March 31.
In a hearing on March 29, Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Steven Warren took the coalition’s arguments under advisement to decide whether the proposed session is a public meeting under state law. If Warren rules in the coalition’s favor, the city will be compelled to open the “team-building” portion of the Council’s retreat to public view.
These media partners are joining together at a time of scarce resources because we take our watchdog role seriously. When government bodies seek to limit the public’s access to meetings and information, we believe in taking action to protect everyone’s right to know. To help support this work, please make a contribution.
In a change from previous City Council practice, and in opposition to advice from a UNC School of Government expert on open meetings, Asheville City Council plans to go ahead with a 6 1/2-hour closed-door meeting devoted to “strengthening personal relationships, teamwork and communication required to do meaningful work together” on Wednesday, March 31.
Despite objections from Council member Kim Roney, residents and Mountain Xpress, City Attorney Brad Branham insists that the nonpublic session is appropriate and in line with what’s done in “many cities across the state.”
But Frayda Bluestein, David M. Lawrence Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government at the UNC School of Government, tells Xpress that she disagrees with Branham’s view — and she has shared that opinion with him.
As the date of the retreat approaches, the city’s continued insistence that a significant portion of the action take place in secret grows more alarming. Mountain Xpress is calling on Asheville City Council to do the right thing — the transparent thing, the legal thing — by holding its team-building activities in public view.
Smells like team spirit
At annual retreats of Asheville City Council in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, team-building exercises yielded a mix of insights into the personal histories and philosophies that Council members and senior city staffers brought to their work. Some were quirky and some were raw, but the human details that emerged in the company of city staff, a handful of citizens and local media shed new light on Asheville’s leaders — and how they responded to the revelations from their peers.
In 2020, with COVID-19 on March 13 still an emerging threat, City Council focused its time and attention on the potential disruptions the coronavirus might bring to Asheville, skipping the touchy-feely stuff to contemplate what one presenter called “a big elephant in the room.”
This year, Council intends to change things up again, announcing on March 19 that the first day of the two-day retreat will be largely closed to public view. From 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., the city wrote in a press release, “no public business will be deliberated and no action will be taken. This portion of the retreat will not be open to the public.”
Backed up by advice on state open meetings law from Amanda Martin, attorney for the N.C. Press Association, Mountain Xpress objected via email to the city’s plans. “Whether action is taken is not the question. If members of a public body are together for anything other than a strictly social gathering, then it is a meeting,” Martin explained.
A back-and-forth with Branham ensued, with the city attorney sticking to his guns, responding on March 22, “The team-building sessions planned for this portion of the retreat will not include any public hearings, deliberations, voting or otherwise transacting public business. I will be on hand to personally ensure that these limitations are enforced. Therefore, the gathering is merely an informal assembly and not an official meeting as defined by state law.”
Unconvinced, Xpress asked Branham to consult with the office of N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. Branham responded that he would take up the question with the UNC School of Government.
On March 24, Branham told Xpress, “Upon consultation with the School of Government, I remain committed to my opinion that the ‘get to know you’ session of the City Council retreat does not qualify as an official meeting as described by the North Carolina open meetings laws. I have discussed this opinion with the mayor, and the city plans to proceed with the Council retreat as planned.”
But UNC School of Government professor and open meeting expert Frayda Bluestein took issue with Branham’s interpretation of open meeting law. “I have a different opinion, which I shared with Brad,” she wrote in a March 26 email. “It seems to me that this is an official meeting. This is a retreat of the board, specifically aimed at the behavior and relationships and among the board as they do the work of the city.”
Bluestein pointed to the state’s statute on closed session meetings [NCGS 143-318.11 (6)], saying that its language describes the type of activity Asheville has outlined in its retreat plans and makes clear that such matters may not be discussed behind closed doors.
“This is a planned activity with a goal of improving their efficacy as a board. That seems like public business to me,” Bluestein concluded.
On the home front
Others have also taken exception to the city’s plans — including one person who is expected to participate in the retreat.
“I am concerned a private retreat day without streaming, recording or option for public attendance will further erode the trust we say we need and should be building,” wrote Council member Kim Roney in an email to Mayor Esther Manheimer and City Manager Debra Campbell on March 8.
“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,” continued Roney. “If the intention is to address conflict, I think this will [exacerbate] it and not be easy to mend.”
Roney’s arguments, however, didn’t get traction. At the Council’s regular meeting on March 23, she cast the only vote opposing the nonpublic session, and city staff later confirmed that no audio or video recording of the team-building session would be captured.
Commenting at the same meeting, two residents also took issue with plans for the retreat, which will be held at the city-owned Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville.
“This team-building exercise is going to require the time of many members of staff and is going to require the use of public facilities. Despite all of these taxpayer-funded costs, City Council has arbitrarily decided to exclude the public from the opportunity to view this portion of the retreat,” said Patrick Conant. “How can our city claim to value transparency when so much effort is being spent towards operating in a completely nontransparent manner?”
Carol Rogoff Hallstrom, herself an attorney, expressed doubt about the legality of the nonpublic session. But beyond that, she continued, “At a time where I think we’re all sharing a real interest in increasing trust between you as a governing body and the communities of Asheville — the governed — that having a portion of a Council convening that is not open and available for public viewing is not in the best interest of furthering that trust.”
Xpress weighs in
After the team-building exercise at the City Council retreat of 2017, then-Council member Keith Young said, “Everyone on Council has a lot of emotion and passion on an ideological level and a political level. Hearing these stories helps you understand where that comes from.
“It’s good to see people as human,” he said.
Young was right then, and his sentiment rings even truer now: After a year of isolation and disruption, we need to see our leaders — four of whom have never before participated in a Council retreat in an official capacity — as something other than head-and-shoulders thumbnails on a Zoom screen. We need to see them working through human issues and resolving human differences.
The people of Asheville elected individual Council members, not a team. Any attempt to build a smooth and cohesive unit behind closed doors is antithetical to the process of open and democratic government, because it’s in the points of disagreement that the varying perspectives of Council’s constituents are represented and, eventually, reconciled.
There’s still time to change course, and that’s what City Council should do by opening the full retreat to public view.
Updated at 5:15 p.m. on March 29 to include documents submitted to the Buncombe County Superior Court.