The Goldsboro City Council and city management plan to field applicants interested in serving as mayor without providing the public access to records at the front end of the process, an apparent violation of state public records law.
The application process opened Wednesday with the city clerk accepting applications from residents interested in serving the remainder of former Mayor Chuck Allen’s term, which ends in 2023. Allen resigned in June for health reasons.
Instead of appointing a successor after Allen’s resignation, the council has set up a five-week process that involves receiving applications, interviewing candidates and appointing the next mayor with a majority vote, potentially on Aug. 16.
On Monday, the council voted to adopt an application procedure and timeline for filling the city’s top elected post.
The process involves the city clerk accepting applications that remain “sealed” until they are all received by 5 p.m. on July 23.
Because the applications are a matter of public record and open to public inspection, withholding the applications violates the state public records law, said C. Amanda Martin, legal counsel for the N.C. Press Association.
“Unless the city can cite a specific statutory provision that allows them to withhold applications, they must produce them as they are received,” Martin said. “If they can’t identify a statutory provision, then it’s a public record that has to be produced.
“If the city can identify a statute that permits them to keep them confidential then they can do so, but any government agency withholding public records must be able to point to a specific statutory provision that permits confidentiality.”
Laura Getz, Goldsboro city clerk, declined to answer questions on whether there is any statutory provision allowing the records to be kept from the public. Getz, instead, referred to the council’s approved application process.
David Ham, mayor pro tem, said Tuesday that he would check into the issue but declined to answer phone calls later in the day Tuesday and on Wednesday.
Ham, who was appointed by council to serve as mayor pro tem in December, has not ruled out a run for the mayor’s post.
The application process approved by council involves the city manager and city clerk opening application “envelopes” after the July 23 deadline. Getz and Tim Salmon, Goldsboro city manager, will then verify if each applicant meets the qualifications to be mayor. The applications will then be forwarded to the City Council.
Getz declined to say if any of the applications could be discarded if a person is found to be ineligible for the seat. She did not say if the council or the public will be able to review applications from people who are not qualified.
Eligibility criteria include a person who is at least 21 years of age, a resident of the city for at least 30 days and not a felon who has not had rights restored.
All of the records filed with the city clerk are a matter of public record and should be made available to the public, according to Chapter 132 of N.C. General Statutes.
Withholding the applications from public inspection as they come in is something Martin said isn’t allowed unless city officials can cite a statute.
“They have to give a statute,” Martin said. “They have to identify a statutory provision.”
In addition to Ham, Councilman Bill Broadaway and Councilman Gene Aycock did not respond to interview requests. Councilwoman Hiawatha Jones was also not available for comment.
Councilwoman Brandi Matthews expressed concern about the council’s adopted policy and timeline.
“I do not support this process that was adopted in filling the seat for mayor, and that has been my stance from the very beginning,” Matthews said Wednesday.
The council voted 4-1 to adopt the application procedure Monday, with Matthews voting in opposition. Aycock was not present for the vote. Ham, Jones, Broadaway and Councilman Taj Polack voted in favor of the policy.
Matthews has said during previous council meetings that the public should be more involved in the process and has advocated for a special election. She has also said the council should consider appointing the next highest vote-getter in the 2019 mayoral race.
Polack said if laws are being violated, the adopted procedure needs to be addressed.
“We don’t need to have any more glitches,” Polack said Tuesday. “We don’t need to have any more discrepancies with our city. If anything that is illegal is being done or the community’s unaware of even as citizens, I think, it needs to be informed, that they need to be informed.”
Polack said he can understand if mayoral applications are being withheld for people who may have a background that needs to be explained.
“(Maybe) they’re not disclosing information because maybe some applicant maybe had a felony charge or something that they omitted from their application and (city staff and council) want to do a check before somebody from the public kinda pulls this person up and throws them under the bus,” Polack said.
The City Council plans to review the applications and candidates will be able to speak before council during its Aug. 2 meeting. The council will then decide if they have enough information to appoint a mayor on Aug. 16, according to the council’s policy.
The process of withholding applications from public review also took place in February when city staff accepted applications for the council’s District 1 seat.
At that time, Martin said the council could not treat applicants for the City Council seat as city employees and keep the applications from the public.
“I don’t know of any law that allows this process to be conducted with any level of secrecy,” Martin said. “If the city council thinks there is such a justification, they should identify it. Those individuals and applications are not the same as personnel records. The records for those applicants are not the same for public employment personnel records.”
In addition to making the applications public, the City Council must also conduct the entire selection process in open session, Martin said. In addition to the applications, all associated documents are a matter of public record, Martin said.
Residents interested in applying for council consideration can pick up an application in the city clerk’s office, located in the City Hall annex, at 200 N. Center St., or find one online at www.goldsboronc.gov.