7/8/20: TOWN COUNCIL DISREGARDS PUBLIC WITH HOUR-LONG CLOSED SESSION IN MIDDLE OF BUSINESS MEETING. It’s Time to Rethink the ‘Electronic Meeting.’ (Plus, Widening S. Dogwood Trail?)

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Twenty-eight minutes into its meeting last night, the Southern Shores Town Council adjourned to hold a closed session with Town Attorney Ben Gallop, the subject of which Mayor Tom Bennett described only in terms of a N.C. law that addresses attorney-client privileged consultations by public bodies.

Nearly an hour later—54 minutes to be precise (from 5:58 p.m. to 6:52 p.m.)—the five Council members returned, and the meeting resumed without any mention of the closed session, much less an apology to the viewing taxpayer/property-owner public who waited patiently in front of a blank Zoom screen for the continuation of what was supposed to be a routine Town Council meeting with a closed session at the end of the business agenda.

Those hardy few spectators who had shown up to attend the 5:30 p.m. meeting at the Pitts Center were no longer there. That I still was did not make me happy.

I am going to abandon my editorial “we” briefly to say that I was angry and offended by this unnecessary and inconsiderate hour-long delay. What were Council members thinking? . . . Indeed, were they thinking?

The disrespect the Council showed the public left me, as I said in an impromptu public comment during the second comment period, “flabbergasted.” Council members apparently thought nothing of wasting an hour of people’s time while they “consulted.” I think what they did was grossly inappropriate.

In nearly six years of regular attendance at Town Council meetings, I have only seen the Town Council adjourn into a closed session with Mr. Gallop once during the conduct of business, and that was to discuss a zoning text amendment about non-conforming lots that was scheduled for a vote. That contentious issue consumed maybe 30-40 minutes behind closed doors and resulted in the Council devising a plan of action.

Last night, Mayor Bennett made a motion early in the meeting to amend the agenda to hold a closed session “pursuant to N.C. General Statutes sec. 143-318.11(a)(3) to consult with” Mr. Gallop “to preserve the attorney-client privilege between the attorney and the public body,” after the first public comment period and before the business portion of the meeting. Such scheduling is unprecedented.

The other four Council members readily agreed, without question, suggesting that they had all discussed this move before the meeting.

Before the first public comment period, Police Chief David Kole and SSVFD Chief Ed Limbacher gave their monthly reports and thus were spared the inconvenience and aggravation of the long wait.

Deputy Town Manager/Planning Director Wes Haskett also gave a report, but he returned for the business meeting. I know this because I heard his voice, but I never actually saw him.

The Town Council persists in using technology with a stagnant camera that remains fixed on only one angle. Most prominent in the picture are the backs of the Finance Officer and the Town Manager. Mr. Haskett was off-camera in the invisible periphery.

My thought at home, seated in front of my laptop, was that perhaps Mr. Gallop had to leave early. Why else would the Council interrupt a business meeting to discuss the “handling or settlement of a claim, judicial action, mediation, arbitration, or administrative procedure,” all of which constitute the subject matter of a sec. 143-318.11(a)(3) closed session?

Mr. Gallop did not depart early.

If, in fact, the closed session concerned an “existing lawsuit,” the Mayor was required by state law to identify the parties in the lawsuit when he moved to adjourn. This is black-letter law in N.C.G.S. sec. 143-318.11(c).

Not only did he not give a case name, he offered no explanation for why he wanted to move the attorney-client privileged closed session that had been scheduled at the end of the meeting—notice of which was given to all members of the public for more than a week—to the middle of the meeting.

When the meeting did end, about 7:45 p.m., the Mayor moved to go into another closed session, this time for a “personnel matter,” pursuant to N.C.G.S. sec. 143-318.11(a)(6).

N.C. law requires a “public body’s” motion to hold a closed session to “cite one or more of the permissible purposes” listed in N.C. G.S. sec. 143-318.11(a).

Nowhere in the (a)(6) subsection do the words “personnel matter” appear.

The statutory language proffered there is “to consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of employment . . . etc.” and other such specific issues that may be discussed outside of the public’s purview.

In fact, the statute specifically says that “general personnel policy issues” may not be considered in a closed session.

The Mayor’s sloppy motion shorthand is unacceptable. It is just another way to withhold from the public information—to which it is entitled—about town business.

I abhor both the intrusive closed session, which placed an undue burden on the public, and the Mayor’s lack of professionalism, regardless of why it occurred.

‘ELECTRONIC MEETINGS’

Speaking about sloppy, it is long past time for the Town Council to cease perpetuating the fiction that it is holding “electronic meetings.” None of the Town Council members or Town staff members appear by electronic means. The Council is holding in-person meetings and relegating the public to remote status.

In so doing, once again, it is the Council’s convenience that is being served before accommodation and consideration for the public.

That the Town Council, Town Finance Officer, and Town Manager again sat last night at folding tables arranged on the Pitts Center floor in a square-like configuration, rather than on the dais and on the sideline (for staff), with chairs set out at six-foot intervals for audience members, is astounding. They are discouraging public participation with their coffee klatch setup.

For an example of how the seating should be arranged, we refer them to videos of the June 17 and July 1 meetings of the Nags Head Board of Commissioners, with whom new Town Manager Cliff Ogburn is very familiar. There was ample space at both of these meetings for members of the public to attend and observe infection-control measures, such as safe physical distancing.

Nags Head also live-streams its meetings in real time. The camera moves with the speaker, who is not only visible, but clearly audible.

Southern Shores should consider doing the same. Last night again, four off-camera speakers—Mr. Haskett, Chiefs Kole and Limbacher, and a citizen speaker—were very difficult to hear. The audio on the meeting You Tube videotape, which has already been posted online, is not much better.

Nags Head’s commissioners also dress in business attire and are very mindful of their audience and of Robert’s Rules of Procedure.

I don’t recall a single time last evening when Mayor Bennett asked “All opposed?” after taking an “All in favor” vote and either hearing or assuming unanimity.

He also doesn’t bother to restate motions before calling for a vote.

Further, it would be a courtesy if the Mayor were to recognize at the start of the meeting who is present, inasmuch as the Zoom public cannot see everyone.

The Beacon has written before about what we call sloppiness in Town Council proceedings. Perhaps Mr. Ogburn, with the excellent experience he gained as town manager of Nags Head, can effect a change.

SOUTH DOGWOOD TRAIL CURBING AND WIDENING THE ROAD

Steve House, a member of the Dare County Board of Commissioners and a Southern Shores resident—although he did not state his address, and Mayor Bennett did not ask him to comply with this public-comment etiquette—complained last night about the new curbing on South Dogwood Trail that was installed because of the sidewalk design.

Mr. House described the new curbing as “very sharp” in areas and asked Town Council members to check out tire marks on the curbs for themselves.

(We have previously heard complaints from other property owners about the new narrowness of the road and scraps against the curbs.)

“I just replaced a rim on my truck,” Mr. House said, that was damaged when it came up against a new curb.

Unfortunately, Mr. House’s assumed answer to this problem created by Town Engineer Joe Anlauf, who recently had his contract extended two years, is not one that has enjoyed support among property owners.

“I know you’re looking at widening the road,” said Mr. House, when he put in a plug for fixing the curbs.

If that is the case, then Mr. House knows something the public does not know. The Town has never publicly said it would be widening South Dogwood Trail.

The Dogwood Trails Task Force, a Town Council-appointed committee that surveyed property owners about the possibility and design of sidewalks on the Dogwood trails, expressly concluded that the public opposes widening South Dogwood Trail. A wider road would encourage faster traffic and further nonresidents’ perception of the road as a thoroughfare.

That Mr. Anlauf could not figure out how to install curbs without narrowing the road is baffling to us. Couldn’t he have narrowed the five-foot-wide sidewalk, in certain locations, instead of the road?

(BTW, Mr. House is running against Democrat Kathy McCullough-Testa, also of Southern Shores, in November to retain his seat.)

RETURN OF CURBSIDE RECYCLING: On a positive note, Mr. Haskett reported that he expects to be able to deliver to the Town Council at its Aug. 4 meeting an amended contract with Bay Disposal & Recycling that would bring true recycling back to Southern Shores. The contract would provide for Bay Disposal’s collection of the Town’s curbside recyclables and their delivery to a recycling process center in Portsmouth owned by Recycling & Disposal Services, Inc.

Since last December, Bay Disposal has transported the Town’s recyclables to an incinerator at a waste-to-energy facility in Portsmouth, not to a recycling center. (The Beacon has written extensively about the recycling crisis in Southern Shores and on the Outer Banks, generally. Please scan the archives for background.)

We will elaborate in the days ahead about some of the business that arose last night after the closed session. As we predicted earlier, all budget amendments and resolutions passed unanimously.

***

COMING UP SOON: “From Ice Cream to Tacos: How a Former Planning Board Chairman Opened the Door to Fast Food in Southern Shores.”

Yes, that really is a Taco Bell opening soon in front of the Marketplace.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 7/8/20; revised 7/9/20

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