Opinion

Greensboro Council’s problems with truth continue

castle-gate-door-lock-secret

castle-gate-door-lock-secret

The deadline for this column was the afternoon of election day. If Hillary Clinton has lost, it will be in no small part because people did not trust her. If she won, it will have been with what I suspect were plenty of people holding their noses and choosing policy over honesty.

Americans are right to demand that the people in our government act ethically. Our indignation is righteous when public people lie to us. We expect a respect for the truth and the rule of law. An honest answer to the question, “Did you wipe the server?” is not “Like with a cloth or something?” That is a contemptuous answer that should make any red blooded American angry.

In the same category is the devious answer to a straight question given by the City of Greensboro Attorney Tom Carruthers at a city council meeting last month. Upon reconvening from a closed session—no public or press allowed—Councilmember Sharon Hightower implied that city council had taken a vote in private. Under state law, it is against the law for public bodies to keep votes secret.

As the public clamored for answers with shouts from the floor, Mayor Nancy Vaughan asked of Carruthers: “The question is whether or not the vote is public.”

Carruthers, with grave sincerity, replied: “I don’t consider what was taken a vote, I consider it was a consensus of council. We don’t take votes in closed session.”

That turned out to be a lie.

I and the News & Record asked for the minutes and audio recording of the closed meeting. After two weeks and pressure from an attorney hired by the News & Record, they were released.

The records revealed that city council, in Carruthers’ presence and contrary to his adamant insistence, had taken two votes in that closed session. These were not informal, “What does the group think?” kind of questions. They were not a measure of consensus. These were formal votes where motions were made and seconded, with the mayor asking “All in favor?” and each council member casting a vote.

Mere moments after these votes, Carruthers answered the direct question of whether or not the results of the votes were public with “We don’t take votes in closed session.”

Even though Carruthers’ public dissembling is quite serious, more troubling still is the complicity of the Greensboro City Council. Whatever confused notion Carruthers may have about his responsibilities and loyalties, it is city council that is supposed to be looking out for the interests of we, the people. Insulating their deliberations from public scrutiny, voting in secret and then sitting quietly while they watched the city attorney lie for them is not in the service of the public interest.

To her credit, Mayor Nancy Vaughan did not, like her colleagues, cower behind the mendacious cover the city attorney had offered up to keep council’s inappropriate actions secret and she did reveal the results of one of the votes—in an exasperated huff. It was hard to tell if she was angry at the public for putting her on the spot or with Carruthers for giving an answer she knew to be false.

Still, Vaughan, like all of her experienced colleagues should have known better than to even have had the discussion in closed session or to take secret votes. The topic of the secret votes was whether or not to allow council members to look at the details of an internal police investigation. That was not a proper subject for a closed meeting to begin with.

As Susan Ladd of the News & Record observed, “That meeting does not in any way conform to the criteria for a closed session.” Ladd also wondered, “What else have they improperly discussed that should have been aired before the public they serve?” That’s a good question. I’ve made an information request for records of all votes council has taken in closed sessions this year. I’ll keep you posted.

In the mean time, our remedy is to demand better from our elected officials. In addition to Carruthers, there were two other attorneys in the closed session, District 3 representative Justin Outling and at-large member Mike Barber. Barber was even responsible for making one of the motions council voted on in secret. What was he thinking? His motion got a second from Marikay Abuzuaiter who, after multiple terms on council should know better. They all should have known better.

Under North Carolina open meetings law, there are very strict and limited reasons why a public body can meet in private. Avoiding the public discomfort of discussing prickly subjects is not one of them and watching council repeatedly acquiesce to Barber’s motions for five-minute recesses when public deliberations get heated casts doubt on the extent to which this council understands the meanings of transparency and accountability. Hiding contentious disagreement may serve to protect the image of council, but it does not serve the public interest in knowing how our representatives are representing us.

It was especially disheartening to hear Outling defend the secrecy of the closed meeting as necessary to protect “attorney-client” privilege. As North Carolina local government law expert David M. Lawrence has written, when it comes to public bodies meeting in private, the attorney-client protection extends to “legal advice only.” It does not, Lawrence explains, “extend to all conversations the client might wish remain confidential.”

Outling knows that the deliberations and subsequent votes made by council were not about legal advice. He should have been advocating for the closed session to end while it was underway instead of trying to keep its details secret after the fact. Meeting behind closed doors to, among other things, get the advice of an attorney does not provide blanket secrecy to all discussions that occur there. As the legal professionals on council, it would be nice to see Barber and Outling using their professional knowledge to argue and push for greater transparency instead of working, as they do, for greater obfuscation.

State statutes provide little remedy for violations of the open meetings laws. A court can declare an action taken in an illegally closed meeting null and void, but there is no penalty to the offending officials. The only remedy is at the ballot box. For those of us concerned about integrity in government, we should not lose sight of the fact that the accountability we can most affect is at the local level. We can, and should, insist that Greensboro City Council shape up—or be prepared to ship them out in 2017’s election.

This column was updated to clarify that the News & Record hired an attorney.

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