07/23/10 — Committee whispers to beat open meeting

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Committee whispers to beat open meeting

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 23, 2010 1:46 PM

Jack Best

Just moments after commenting about how open the committee charged with making recommendations to fill a vacant school board seat has been, county commission Chairman Jack Best Thursday afternoon led committee members in a hushed discussion that had the five people in the audience straining to hear what was being said.

Prior to that, Best had said that it would be easier for the committee to discuss the candidates under consideration without the public in the room. When no one left the room after his hint, he led the group in a whispered discussion.

And the half-hour meeting was nearly over before the audience could hear enough to know that the committee would send three names for county commissioners to consider this morning -- Len Henderson, Ven Faulk and Dr. Dwight Bernard Cannon, all of Dudley. Linda Pigford of Mount Olive was a candidate as well.

"I want to let (News-Argus reporter) Mr. (Steve) Herring know it is an open meeting and always has been open," Best said at the start of the meeting. "Now that I have said that, he can do what he wants to."

Both Best and committee member Jimmy Williams were critical of News-Argus articles quoting an attorney for the N.C. Press Association who said the meetings did not involve personnel and could not be held in closed session.

During an earlier meeting, Williams said he thought the issue was a personnel matter and had asked Best if the meetings could be closed. Best said he would ask county attorney Borden Parker.

Best eventually asked Parker, but refused to tell the newspaper what Parker had said.

The whispered discussion Thursday was so low that at one point Williams had to lean over to tell fellow committee members Robyn Wade and school board Vice Chairman Thelma Smith what had been said. Best said after the meeting he had not spoken loudly because he had a sore throat.

Also, rather than saying their choices openly, Best had committee members write down their first and second choices on small slips of paper. Best asked Parker if that was permissible. Parker said the members would need to sign the slips of paper.

As they discussed how to rank the four candidates, committee member Paul Smalley said he had not seen the list with the rankings.

"I don't know what you are talking about," he said. "I have not seen the list."

"Let Paul see the list," Williams said.

Best said the committee had four "very qualified people" and that it faced a "tough choice."

"The choice we make probably will impact the children of Wayne County," Best said. "There is no way we can have a frank and open discussion with people looking over our shoulder."

Best suggested that anyone in the audience who felt the same should leave the room and wait outside the door. He said that someone would let them know when they could some back in and learn of the committee's decision.

No one in the audience moved.

"As no one is leaving, I say we come up with a consensus of the top two candidates," he said.

That is when Best suggested that committee members write down their two choices and the hushed discussion began. Best said that as committee chairman he would not submit any choices.

Committee members Jim Parker and Shirley Bond tabulated the choices.

Some committee members, again in low voices, spoke for several minutes without identifying which candidates they were discussing.

School Board Chairman Rick Pridgen, who was seated in the second row in the audience, said he could not hear what was said.

"I thought the overall process up to this point was pretty good," Pridgen said after the meeting. "However, at today's meeting I could not hear a lot of what was being discussed and I was sitting on the second row among the public.

"I don't know that it was on purpose, but I could not hear them. I don't think it was in the public's right to speak up to say that we couldn't hear you, but at the same time I was listening very hard and couldn't hear some of what they were saying. I think they should have spoken a little louder."

Pridgen said later that while the voting procedure had been "OK," he thought it had been too confusing and had led to contention among committee members and had contributed to the whispering.

Mrs. Smith suggested sending three names to commissioners, prompting Mrs. Wade to say that if the committee did so, it might as well send all four.

Committee member and Commissioner Andy Anderson said that if the committee sent three names without some sort of ranking that commissioners would have no idea how the committee came up with the list.

He also asked whether the three should be asked to make themselves available for today's meeting in case commissioners wanted to hear from them.

Best asked Parker for his opinion.

Parker said it would be appropriate to let the three know their names would be submitted. It would be up to them to decide if they wanted to attend the meeting. It would be up to commissioners to decide about speaking, he said.

Committee member Jim Parker said he thought the candidates should speak. He added that he wished that every time he went into a voting booth for commissioner, school board or Congress that he had the kind of choices the committee was faced with.

The committee members and their top two choices were: Smalley -- Henderson and Ms. Pigford; Mrs. Wade -- Faulk and Cannon; Mrs. Smith -- Cannon and Faulk; Mrs. Bond -- Henderson and Cannon; Anderson -- Faulk and Henderson; Parker -- Henderson and Faulk; and Williams -- Faulk and Cannon.