Monday, August 15, 2022

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Graham, NC 27253
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Backroom deals are never a good idea in local government

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Backroom deals are never a good idea in local government

We’ve tried over many years to hold local public bodies to the open government (and thereby, good government) standard to which North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law specifies:

“Whereas the public bodies that administer the legislative, political, quasi-judicial, administrative, and advisory functions of North Carolina and its political subdivisions exist solely to conduct the public’s business.  It is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly.”

We believe firmly that public policy decisions on any topic are better arrived at, are more accepted by the public they represent, and are all around the best, most effective and efficient way to transact the public’s business.

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Always!

We’ve had a difficult time impressing this standard on a few elected boards over the years, and right now it appears to be the Graham city council that needs some remedial attention.

At the June 14 Graham city council meeting, mayor Jennifer Talley pressed her colleagues not to adopt a new water and sewer system development fee schedule that was on the council’s agenda for that night.

Talley stated that the almost three-fold increase in rates contemplated by the engineer’s calculations (using a state-mandated methodology) resulted in proposed new rates that would present sticker shock to local builders – and potentially bring to a halt building in Graham. The full rate was one of three options on the agenda – a 50 percent increase and a 25 percent increase were two other options.

Talley basically browbeat her colleagues, arguing with them for almost an hour before they finally agreed to postpone a decision for two weeks.

A few words about those colleagues.  Talley has the advantage, through previous city council service, of having more experience than any of the other four members.  Mayor pro tem Ricky Hall has been on the council for two years and several years on the planning board prior to his election.  But the other three council members are newbies.

They’re smart, they’re willing to learn, and they’re industrious, we think; they just don’t have a very long track record of knowing a lot about local government – neither the substance nor the process.

The council finally determined to set a special meeting for two weeks out (held this Tuesday, June 28) in order to provide plenty of time for local builders and developers to find out about, and weigh in on, the new rate proposal.

So far, so good.

 

Off the rails and into the backrooms

But here’s where things ran off the rails and into the backrooms.

Since that meeting, Talley alerted the builders and developers, both by calling and notifying some of them directly, or by getting the homebuilders’ association to notify its members of Graham’s plans.

Talley held discussions, most by phone (based on her description), soliciting their opinions, but, quite frankly, also apparently soliciting their support for her contention that the full implementation of the new rates were both too high, and to be implemented too fast (i.e., on July 1).

The selective appeal to one particular special interest group is  questionable, in our judgment, but that proved to be not the worst of the closed-door conclaves and huddles that transpired over the past two weeks.

By Talley’s own description, the conference room on the lower floor of one of her office buildings in downtown Graham was the site earlier this week for a pow-wow between councilman Bobby Chin who was originally meeting with Chad Huffine, a local engineer who also doubles as a new member of the city’s planning board (a post from which Chin graduated to the council last November). Also in that meeting was the mayor’s husband, Chuck Talley.

We don’t find it particularly upsetting for a councilman to meet with constituents on an issue of pending public policy, although the first alarm bells should have gone off at the idea that one of her colleagues on the city council was conducting a meeting that included her husband who is, himself, a local contractor.

Someone apparently called over to city hall (just a block away) about some of the questions that had come up about the new proposed rates.  Assistant manager Aaron Holland volunteered to come join the meeting and he brought with him Josh Johnson, the city’s engineer, who works with the local architect and engineering firm of Alley, Williams, Carmen, & King.

Their joining a “constituent” meeting brought more complications. Now, we have not just a councilman’s meeting with interested constituent(s), but the addition of tax-paid city employees (and in Johnson’s case, a contracted one) in on the meeting.

No one is being “lobbied” or influenced – either overtly or indirectly?

 

The mayor’s husband present?  Surely not!

But our concerns over questionable ethics turned into pure and simple outrage when we learned that the mayor apparently strolled into the meeting, coming downstairs to her company conference room – ostensibly, she insists, to ask a few questions on behalf of one constituent, Graham builder Dennis Euliss, with whom she had discussed the new rates.

When she saw that her own husband was a part of the meeting, she should have done one of two things: turned around and left immediately, or asked her husband to vamoose so that she could join the gathering.

The idea that the mayor was subsequently meeting with a fellow councilman – already skirting the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s Open Meetings Law – the assistant city manager, and the city engineer, in a closed-door huddle with one constituent (Huffine) and another (who was her own husband) is fundamentally, totally, inappropriate.

And we found it hard to comprehend that she did so – and that she still doesn’t seem to get how bad that appears to the general public.

To her credit, it was mayor Talley herself who publicly revealed that Chuck Talley was in attendance at the meeting she joined.  But that revelation is small consolation for the alarming insensitivity to the flagrant appearance of a conflict of interest.

Now a few caveats to our outrage over violating the principles of the state’s Open Meetings Law.

That little conclave in the mayor’s office conference room might have produced some good ideas.  There might have been some legitimate concepts, principles, compromises that came from it. All of which could have – and should have – been discussed in an open public meeting in front of other developers, other city councilmen, and, most importantly, in front of the taxpaying public.

Instead, the little meeting, which included her husband, in the mayor’s conference room smacks of special treatment, favoritism, even nepotism.

Mayor Talley is unapologetically insistent that she did nothing wrong.

She is unyielding in her insistence that she did not influence Chin in any way, did not try to persuade Chin or city staff to the merits of any particular position with regard to the appropriate level for the new rates.

But, given the context of the week, we’re left to take her word for it.

And while we don’t have any reason to distrust her per se, it is an incredibly improper and unprofessional lapse in judgment on her part to have continued in any closed-door meeting at which her husband was a participant.

As the publisher told the mayor at this week’s city council meeting, this kind of backroom shenanigans is exactly what many of her critics – and even some more neutral observers – have been concerned about from the outset of her mayoral tenure.

 

Credit where credit is due

More caveats: Jennifer and Chuck Talley have done yeoman’s work in restoring more of downtown Graham in their private capacities than anyone else over the past 20 years or more. Several others have done significant restoration projects (and have more on the drawing boards) – notably Jason Cox and former city councilman Lee Kimrey.

The mayor is one of the most forward thinking leaders Graham has had – both in recent years and currently.  As she accurately pointed out to the newspaper and its publisher, it was her idea in the first place earlier this year to have the council review and reconsider the development fees because they were too low compared to other jurisdictions – and hadn’t been reconsidered in years.

And we commend her for that insight.

We also commend her foresight when the topic first came up earlier this month (at the June 14 council meeting) in understanding that the development community wouldn’t be enthusiastic about being asked to pay more for city permits and fees.

We don’t generally ever consider it a bad idea to seek more public input on any public policy decisions.

But especially because she and her husband do a lot of construction work, she needs to be exceptionally cautious – and scrupulously open about, as in at an open meeting – in considering, deliberating, and taking action (precisely some of the Open Meetings Law standards) in reviewing, discussing, considering, or deciding new rates and other public policy issues.

We don’t find any flaw in the substance of her position toward these fees and rates.

But we continue to believe that the process of openness and transparency is also of fundamental importance for good and sound local government.

And, in fact, when the process is derailed into private, backroom discussions with select special interests (and including your own family members), the result is never going to be as sound as it would have been if arrived at openly, in full view of the public and all interested parties.


Read news coverage on:

The underlying issue about the appropriate level for water and sewer system development fees: https://alamancenews.com/graham-city-council-adopts-revised-fees-higher-but-not-as-high-as-originally-recommended/

Publisher criticizes lack of openness in deciding issue: https://alamancenews.com/graham-city-council-adopts-revised-fees-higher-but-not-as-high-as-originally-recommended/

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