We accept that meetings that have gone on between Wayne County commissioners and county school board members have been done above board. We also do not doubt that the “backroom meetings,” as schools’ Superintendent Michael Dunsmore calls them, were held legally.
But we agree with Dunsmore that they need to stop.
Why? Transparency is a good reason. The public should know what actions are being considered by local elected officials. The most significant reason, though, is efficiency.
When meetings are held with a minority of elected officials from a board, they can usually meet behind closed doors, away from the press and the public. But with only a minority number of members present, no action can be taken. All that can be done is to have information from the closed “backroom meeting” communicated to the full board in a second meeting, with yet another or third meeting usually required before a vote is taken.
Remember playing the game “Telephone” as children? You would tell the person next to you something like “The sky is filled with blue.” As each player passed the information along, it would change a bit. So, when it came to the last player in the circle, the saying may have become something like “The jar is full of goo.”
This is the problem we believe with the backroom meetings that have been held. No action has been taken, and information has become lost from the gathering to the reporting to the full board — either school or commissioners’ boards. This we believe is what Dunsmore was alluding to when he said Tuesday, “You better have a recorder. You better have someone sitting next to you that is keeping real good notes. I want to have the backup documentation that it is not ‘I think, I said and what was agreed upon.’ I think it is time that everything is on the record.”
Putting an end to backroom meetings should also include full boards. Many boards in Wayne County make it routine to hold closed session meetings at the beginning or end of meetings. These need to end, as well, unless the boards are meeting on one of the seven topics for which the state allows for secret meetings:
1. To discuss privileged or confidential information of North Carolina, of the U.S. or that which state law does not consider public information.
2. To prevent premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize or similar award.
3. To preserve the attorney-client privilege between a public body and its attorney.
4. To discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area.
5. To negotiate the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract.
6. To discuss action concerning single public employees. General personnel matters may not be held in closed session.
7. To plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct.
… and two other purposes related to school and public safety.
Of course, a public body — which means a quorum or majority of voting members present —cannot go into closed session unless announcing the reason from the list above during an open meeting. And an open voting meeting cannot be held with a quorum present.
Michael Dunsmore’s stand against “backroom meetings” is a powerful one, and it’s one that should be followed by all public boards and agencies within the circulation area of this newspaper and beyond.