In March of 2021, City Council wanted to have a ‘private’ retreat, in defiance of North Carolina open meeting laws. (Ultimately citizens sued, the City lost, and taxpayers picked up the cost of the citizens’ attorney fees. So residents ended up paying for something City Council should never have tried to do in the first place.) I tried to make a public comment about the ‘retreat’ plan, but was foiled by a broken sign-up system. Here are the remarks I’d prepared for Council Meeting on March 23, 2021, which I wasn’t able to deliver.
Let me begin by saying that I think there’s a legitimate case to be made for public servants to obtain professional training so they can fulfill their roles more effectively. I do not object at all, in principal, to the expenditure of public funds to that end.
I do, however, object to all the members of City Council gathering together on March 31st, in private, with no public oversight, to learn how to be better “team members.” City Council’s function is not to be a team that gets along with one another. Why is it in the public interest for City Council to be “a team?” Each Council member was elected by a different subset of our community, for different reasons.
I don’t see any advantage to the citizenry for votes to be 7-0 because everyone’s on the same page. We’re not looking for kumbaya from Council, we’re looking for substantive debate and discussion, leading to outcomes that serve the community.
Civility, collaboration, compromise ~ these all have value in good governance but they are not the goal of good governance. The goal of good governance is serving constituents and making competent use of city resources.
Good governance also avoids even the appearance of potential corruption or collusion.
The excuse I’ve heard for doing this in private is that you will not be deliberating. I would argue that “working on” how to work together is deliberating about deliberating. If you’re going to discuss that, the public deserves to be able to listen in.
We want you to do your job, representing the interests of the citizenry that elected you. And we want to be able to see you doing that job.
Each one of you is an accomplished, mature professional, more than capable of interacting with others in a constructive manner. If you feel the need to learn how to work more effectively with your peers, you could each individually take the initiative to seek such training. I’d even support the City paying for it.
But I do not support a group event held behind closed doors with no public record. It immediately prompts the question: why the need for secrecy? What don’t you want us to witness? It evokes scenarios of collusion and back room deals and arm-twisting. Even if those concerns are mistaken (and how would we know?), I ask you to consider the benefits of being seen to be open, vulnerable and unafraid as you learn. What do you gain by doing this supposedly beneficial exercise in the shadows and what would you lose by doing it publicly?
You want to trust one another? That’s great. We want to trust YOU.
To hold this sort of retreat erodes public confidence in the institution of government. That loss of faith and trust is the bane of modern politics. We need and deserve more accountability and transparency, not less.