As The Mount Airy News writer Tom Joyce noted in a recent column, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners has spent quite a bit of time in closed session this year.
And that disturbing trend continued yesterday, when the board went into a closed session for nearly 90 minutes, with no action to take afterward.
There are times in which a closed session is probably appropriate. If the city is discussing specific financial incentives for luring an industry or keeping one in the community, it makes sense to discuss that behind closed doors.
Please do not misunderstand. Before any such incentives can formally be offered, that needs to be discussed and voted upon in public, but at least the early discussions could be justified behind closed doors, simply because if other communities learn what is being proposed they could swoop in and try to steal the prospective business.
Individual personnel matters, too, could be justified in closed session. We say individual personnel matters, because if a specific individual’s job performance is being discussed, that probably should be private. However, if the board is discussing a position, rather than an individual, or considering job cuts driven by economic conditions, and not by job performance, then that is not an appropriate subject for behind-closed-door discussions and would certainly invite probes as to whether state law were being violated by the board.
Recently the commissioners held a closed session in which they discussed the city’s continuing role in the Mount Airy-Surry County Airport. While a vote was made in public regarding a contract in the issue, the entire discussion took place behind closed doors. City officials cited attorney-client privilege as the reason for the private session.
This doesn’t hold water simply because in this instance, who is the client? The city of Mount Airy, and it is the client who has the prerogative to make attorney-client communications public. In this case, the board of commissioners should have made this discussion public.
The commissioners need to remember they are representing the citizens of Mount Airy, and are conducting business on their behalf. Except for areas in which state or federal law specifically requires a closed session, the board should be meeting in public, sharing its discussions and ideas with the public. Each individual board member should take it upon himself or herself to hold all the commissioners to this standard.
To do otherwise will continue to draw suspicion and eventually will elicit calls for changes in the way the board does business.