Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Budget deliberations should always be open

Readers of this page will not be surprised that The Alamance News doesn’t cotton much to secrecy – not in courtrooms, not among municipal boards, and not in official records.

First a bit of background. Since his arrival as town manager in Gibsonville, Ben Baxley has often led the board of aldermen through a little exercise, hoping to get a read on what his board members are thinking about the budget.

Every year about this time, Gibsonville’s board of aldermen convene a special Saturday meeting where all of the town’s department heads parade through with their “wish lists” of spending needs for the upcoming fiscal cycle, which among all N.C. governments begins July 1.

Baxley allows the fire chief, police chief, public works director, and others to “pitch” to the aldermen, with their best effort, why their department’s needed new expenditures are better, more important, more necessary than the other departments.

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At the end of the exercise, Baxley asks aldermen to rank each of the requests on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being most important, to 5, least important.

Baxley presents the aldermen with what amounts to a slate of 20 or so specific items, a multiple-choice ballot, of sorts – that he knows his department heads are going to promote – and awaits the board members’ reaction.

Presumably, Baxley will shape the budget to fit the priorities as collectively ranked in importance by the mayor and five aldermen.

Now, one failure in Baxley’s exercise has been his delinquency, at least last year and this, in not making more explicit that the aldermen need to identify their sheets, or ballots.

So our eyebrows were raised, when this newspaper’s reporter asked to see the choices, to discover that only three aldermen – Yvonne Maizland, Ken Pleasants, and Shannon O’Toole – dutifully signed their preference sheets. Three others – mayor Lenny Williams and aldermen Mark Shepherd and Clarence Owen – did not.

So we started calling around to the three who didn’t identify their choices to find out which preferences were whose.

We were surprised by a bit of intransigence from alderman Clarence Owen, who said he didn’t want to tell us which items he identified as important or unimportant. “That should be private,” he told us.

No, sir! When elected public officials start deliberating on how their citizens’ tax dollars should be spent, that is very much the public’s right to know.

We suspect many Gibsonville taxpayers will be poring over the rankings of their elected board, in preparation for giving feedback about whether they agree, or disagree, with the priorities expressed.

That’s the way public policy making is supposed to work. With public input. And Owen’s are listed, by the process of elimination, once Williams’ and Shepherd’s were acknowledged. [See the board members’ rankings on page 5 of this edition.]

And, just by the way, for both Owen’s and Baxley’s benefit, the state’s Open Meetings Law makes explicit that when public officials vote by “secret or written ballot” (in the parlance of the statute), which is what Baxley’s prioritization exercise amounted to, each member must sign his or her name to the ballot.

See story on Gibsonville budget retreat, dept. head “pitches” for more spending, and rankings of importance from mayor and aldermen:

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