Tuesday, June 22, 2021

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Graham, NC 27253
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Attention board chairmen and mayors: learn to use the gavel

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Several local chairmen need to learn how to use, and not be timid about using, their gavels to control their board’s public meetings.

Now that boards have returned to meeting in person, there’s apparently a lot of pent-up commentary that some board members, and some members of the public, want to make.
There’s certainly a place for that, but it needs to be done in an orderly fashion.

Monday night’s school board meeting is the most obvious case in point in failing to live up to that standard. There was nothing orderly about it. It got totally out of hand.

For those in doubt, go to this newspaper’s website, or the school system’s, and listen/watch the last six to seven minutes of the meeting.

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There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Members of the audience were very much out of order to snipe at and harangue school board member Patsy Simpson after the official, and sanctioned, “public comment” period was over.

Simpson didn’t set much of an example, either, by responding in hostile kind to the audience members who were, in essence, heckling her and by her taking pot shots at two fellow board members, chairman Allison Gant and vice chairman Tony Rose.

But most of all we lay much of the blame for the meeting spiraling out of control at the feet of board chairman Allison Gant.

ABSS school board member Patsy Simpson (left) questions board chairman Allison Gant (ABSS superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson is between them).

The meeting was adjourned after less than 40 minutes, with only the “public comments” from eight residents having been heard. As an adjunct to those comments, Simpson questioned the board chairman’s efforts to ask before the meeting for the superintendent to review the procedures for student yearbook publication. Then there was the chairman’s attempted response and apology, the superintendent’s brief explanation, and Rose’s effort to defend Gant’s preemptive contact with the superintendent.

Finally, when Gant was unable to restore order, Rose moved to adjourn the meeting – before any other actual agenda items had been addressed – which was seconded by Simpson and adopted unanimously by all seven members.

The whole episode was, quite frankly, an epic embarrassment.

Most, if not all, of it could have been avoided if Gant had merely tapped – or banged, if necessary – her presiding officer’s gavel.

She should have halted the running commentary from audience members who were openly sparring with Simpson.

She should also have restrained Simpson’s outbursts. By its own rules, the board does not customarily respond to “public comments” or commenters, a point Gant made at the outset of the meeting.

But in addition to questioning Gant’s actions, Simpson did verbally engage with – or at – audience members, including standing up at her seat on the dais, her voice growing louder, to emphasize her irritation with what parents had said – either publically from the podium or in snide comments from their seats.

Her comments toward Rose, in particular, bordered on threats.

In addition to needing to control the audience, Gant needed to regulate the board’s dialogue on the dais by formally recognizing one board member at a time (either Simpson or Rose) rather than allowing them to talk over one another.

Members themselves need to show more respect to one another – even when, if not especially when, they disagree.

And while Gant’s failures to control the meeting Monday night were the most obvious, some local boards also face regular challenges.

For reasons we’re not quite sure we fully know or understand, Graham city council members Melody Wiggins and Jennifer Talley do not geehaw very well during their meetings.

They are frequently at odds. Which, as with any board, is okay. Unanimity is not a requirement for public service.

What is not ok, and what mayor Jerry Peterman needs to oversee more authoritatively, is when one of them is talking, the other must patiently await her turn to respond.

Though one might not know it from the press releases they distribute, their tweets, or their interviews on blogs, cable news shows, or other outlets, Congress has developed some pretty good measures for instilling a sense of propriety in daily debates and deliberations.

In both the U.S. Senate and House, members usually speak in the third person about their colleagues. There are not “you” accusations back and forth between members in committee or on the floor of either chamber.

Rather senators and congressmen address each other as “the Senator from North Carolina,” “the gentlewoman from California,” etc. in order to avoid the kind of escalation into personal acrimony that happened Monday night at the school board meeting.

Granted, it’s a bit formal for local government, but the principle is commendable.

 

Disrupting a public meeting
On a separate note, but also regarding presiding over local meetings, perhaps all local chairmen need to be refreshed about one particular aspect of the state’s Open Meetings Law. The failure to observe it has become obvious during various trials for “protesters” who have disrupted some of the county commissioners’ meetings last year.

While the focus of the statute is clearly on the public’s right to attend and observe open meetings, that right carries with it a modicum of an expectation both of respect and of an orderly process.

A person “who willfully interrupts, disturbs, or disrupts an official meeting and who, upon being directed to leave the meeting by the presiding officer, willfully refuses to leave the meeting is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”

We hesitate to highlight the provision lest local officials abuse it.

But a chairman’s failure to cite the statute and to direct the disruptive person to leave can result in no consequences whatsoever for the disruption.

That’s what has happened in several of the disruptions at county commissioner meetings in 2020.

Several of the “protest” cases heard in district court this spring did not end up carrying convictions for those who had disrupted meetings of the county commissioners, for instance. They were, instead, dismissed because the chairman – then Amy Scott Galey, who was subsequently elected to the N.C. state senate – never actually invoked the provision of the law, nor directed the offending disrupter(s) to leave.

There were at least two occasions when the commissioners’ meetings were disrupted, but no one was subsequently found guilty of the disruption, because chairman Galey never banged the gavel challenging the person as out of order, didn’t cite the violation of the statute, and never directed the offending person to leave the meeting room.

It’s not enough for law enforcement officials to suggest that a violation has occurred. They cannot force a person to leave unless and until the chairman has made such a determination.
The chairman, mayor, or other presiding officer must make the determination that the meeting is being disrupted by that person.

Now, we’re certainly not advocating for high-handed tactics by any local chairman or mayor – and this newspaper’s publisher has been the recipient of just such unreasonable treatment by one chairman who was abusing his discretion and violating other portions of the Open Meetings statute in the process.

But transparency in local government requires that board members and those in attendance follow proper procedures and etiquette to ensure that everyone is heard – and, we might add, heard respectfully – and that the public’s business is conducted.

There’s a reason gavels were invented and given to board chairmen. Perhaps they need to be used more often than just for adjourning a meeting.

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