Thursday afternoon the Surry County Board of Commissioners made known its choice for replacing the late Garry Scearce, who died on July 22.
During a press conference called by the board, curiously held at the county Republican headquarters rather than the county administration building, the board members announced that Mount Airy Mayor Deborah Cochran was their choice. They said this was the case because Scearce, shortly before he died, said she is who he wanted to take his seat.
On multiple occasions during the meeting, members of the board, in particular Chairman Buck Golding and member Paul Johnson, became choked up with emotion. It is clear all four of these men were close to Scearce. They not only respected him, but were genuinely close to him.
Making this announcement just 11 days after his death, the commissioners were still dealing with fresh hurt, working through their grief while trying to continue their duties as elected officials.
We understand that, and certainly empathize with them.
We have no problem with Scearce telling them who he would like to take his seat. He was elected by the residents of the Mount Airy District to represent their interest on the board. In his struggles with cancer, as he was facing the end of his life, he still had those people on his mind and chose who he thought would best serve those people. That he was still thinking of those people who elected him, at such a time in his life, speaks more directly and eloquently of his commitment to public service than any words we could write.
Similarly, we have no problem with the person he requested taking his post. Cochran has a life-long demonstration to public service. Monroe Donathan, a local resident and member of the Surry County Republican Party who attended Thursday’s board meeting, spoke of watching Cochran in years past volunteer many hours at the Salvation Army. She did that not to score political points with the public, but as a way to help others in her community, and she has consistently showed that sense of public service as a city commissioner and more recently as mayor of Mount Airy.
What we continue to take issue with is the manner in which this has been handled, and our belief that the board members have broken state open meeting laws. We believe they have worked hard at trying to figure out a way to circumvent those laws.
What is certain is that the board has broken the spirit behind the law. That spirit being that local government, with few exceptions, should conduct its business in open, so those who are supposedly being represented by that government know what their elected representatives are doing.
State law is clear in filling an open commissioner seat — the board must meet in open session and vote to make such an appointment. All discussion and consideration for filling the seat is to take place in open session. That clearly has not happened in this case. The members of this board, it is clear, have discussed this and already decided, long before any public discussion took place, who the replacement would be.
Even during Thursday’s board meeting it was clear the commissioners have no real interest in conducting their business in an open manner. While the board won’t officially vote to appoint Cochran until a scheduled Aug. 20 meeting, the commissioners made it clear this is a done deal, so long as Cochran accepts the appointment.
Golding refused on Thursday to answer questions regarding when and how the board members had made this determination — although Johnson did say Scearce made his wishes known to him on June 23, when Johnson was visiting with Scearce.
Perhaps most galling, and revealing about the character of this board, is that the board members on Thursday said they will entertain no public comment or discussion on filling the seat before voting to appoint Cochran at the Aug. 20 meeting. Twice during Thursday’s meeting the board members said if anyone in the community has input, the board members will take that on an “individual” basis.
In other words, they aren’t really interested in public input, and allowing the residents of this district to make the views known only in private conversations with individual commissioners essentially kills public debate on the issue.
Again, we know the board members are hurting, and we might be willing to give them a little leeway given the emotional and sensitive nature of recent events, but this is not the first time this board has kept the public in the dark and possibly violated state open meeting laws.
This is wrong, and there is no two ways about that.