In Corporate America, during annual reviews people are often rated on their “accomplishments” as well as their “behaviors”. Said another way, employees are rated on the “what they did” as well as the “how they did it”. Often times, there is a perception that the “what” side of the equation is more Important than the “how”. After all, when you get right down to it people get paid for what they deliver.
However, when rating our public institutions and how elected officials work, “how” government conducts its business impacts public opinion as much as “what” government actually does. If the public does not feel the process of government is unquestionably transparent, it becomes harder for the public to accept the results..
With that in mind, a good New Year’s Resolution for our local governing bodies would be….”be as transparent as possible”.
In the spirit of the “annual review”, here are a few opportunities for improvement based on examples from 2014 where local officials did not follow the spirit of that resolution.
Improvement Opportunity #1: Refuse events specifically designed to avoid open meetings law.
In August of 2014, NCDOT coordinated a series of meetings between the local elected Town Boards and Cintra – the contractor awarded the job of widening I77 with controversial High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes. The purpose of the meetings was to allow elected officials to ask questions of the contractor and get information to help them respond to the growing pushback from the public against the project.
The meetings were setup as a series of three separate gatherings with the express purpose of limiting the presence of members from each elected Board so that no one Board had a quorum of members present. If a quorum was present for any elected Board then the meetings would be open to the public. If not, then the meetings could remain closed.
A question to NCDOT asking who's idea it was to keep the meetings closed did not receive a clear response. However, we do know that these meetings only became public because Huntersville Commissioner Rob Kidwell contacted the media.
It may surprise readers that this kind of blatant disregard for the spirit of the open meetings law actually occurs, but unfortunately it occurs more often than you might think. Let’s hope 2015 sees the elimination of this practice due to more elected officials refusing to participate in it.
Improvement Opportunity #2: Implement comprehensive email policies to ensure compliance with State public records laws.
In North Carolina almost all government “records” are open to the public – including emails from elected officials and town staff regarding public business. Any citizen can request copies of public records – no questions asked. Access to these public records is one of the main channels for the public and the media to more fully understand how decisions are made beyond just reading meeting minutes.
Unfortunately, our local towns do not have consistent email policies. Davidson and Cornelius do not have official policies beyond the state legislation. Huntersville has one, but it is somewhat outdated. According to the town clerks, the town attorneys of Huntersville and Cornelius use the towns’ email systems. Davidson’s town attorney apparently does not. Elected officials and staff are encouraged to always use the town email systems, but over the past year multiple examples can be found where officials are using their private email accounts to discuss public business.
This last point is important because these private-account emails are still public records, but there is effectively no way to ensure they are made available to the public. Officials are on the honor system to submit any emails that may be subject to a particular request.
To remedy this situation, the towns should implement policies based on best practices available from the UNC School of Government. If the public knows they are receiving everything that is pertinent to a public records request, that will be a positive step to building public trust in the system.
Improvement Opportunity #3: Respect the will of the voters.
This last one is simple. If elected Boards have the task of replacing one of their members as the Cornelius board did in 2014, they should simply choose the next highest vote getter from the last election if that person still wants the job.
That’s simply the right thing to do to respect the will of the people. Doing anything else no matter how you couch it, simply doesn't feel right. It leaves the perception that politics is afoot and in politics perception often is reality.
With these opportunities going forward into 2015, let’s hope our local official keep in mind how things look in addition to what they actually are. Trust in government – something that can always use a boost – would certainly be the better for it.