A court-ordered primer on racial equity was apparently one of the conversation topics on Monday when Alamance County’s commissioners huddled behind closed doors with their attorneys to discuss a recent legal settlement with the local chapter of the NAACP.
The county’s board of commissioners ultimately spent almost two hours in this closed session, which they convened at the end of a regularly-scheduled public meeting in order to confer with their lawyers and discuss the performance of unspecified county personnel.
Although the commissioners weren’t obligated to reveal anything about the personnel matter before they went behind closed doors, the N.C. Open Meetings Law required them to identify any court cases they planned to discuss under the veil of attorney-client privilege. To this end, John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, cited a federal lawsuit that the Alamance County NAACP and several other plaintiffs had originally filed against Graham’s municipal leaders last summer in response to restrictions that the city had imposed on demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The NAACP and its co-plaintiffs ultimately dropped their complaints against the city’s leaders after Graham’s city council repealed a longstanding permit requirement for protests and other large gatherings. In the meantime, however, the plaintiffs turned their attention to the county’s top brass, who had become increasingly hesitant to allow gatherings on the grounds of Alamance County’s courthouse, which features a century-old Confederate monument at the building’s northern approach.
The NAACP and its allies went on to identify Alamance County’s sheriff, the county manager, and each member of the county’s board of commissioners as co-defendants in their federal action. Since then, four of the five commissioners who were initially named in the suit have either retired or gone on to hold higher office, leaving their seats to four newcomers, who have been substituted as parties to the NAACP’s court action.
It was under this largely novice board of commissioners that the county’s lawyers were able to reach a settlement with the plaintiffs – the text of which was submitted to the federal courts on April 16. Under this negotiated agreement, the two sides accepted the broad strokes of a policy for gatherings on the courthouse grounds that the county had crafted last year at the insistence of federal district court judge Catherine C. Eagles, who has presided over the NAACP’s lawsuit. The settlement also obligated the county’s leaders to pledge that they would manage any assemblies on county property “in a viewpoint- and content-neutral manner,” and it included a specific acknowledgement from the sheriff that “swear” words and “indecent” language aren’t necessarily grounds for arrest “even when such language is directed at law enforcement.”
Another key provision of the settlement required each of “the county defendants,” as well as all of the sheriff’s sworn personnel, “to participate in an educational training on implicit racial bias or racial equity by September 24, 2021.”
The provisions of this agreement were ultimately incorporated into a consent order that Eagles issued at the behest of both sets of litigants on April 20. Since then, a majority of the commissioners have apparently met the order’s educational mandate thanks to an instructional session that the sheriff’s office conducted on Tuesday to familiarize its own deputies with the prevailing wisdom on racial equity and implicit bias.
Commissioner Pam Thompson, who attended this workshop with three of her fellow commissioners, assured The Alamance News that she felt privileged to sit in on a course that has become part of the training regimen of every sheriff’s deputy in Alamance County.
“I would have taken it anyway because I think every leader needs to take it,” she added in an interview Wednesday. “I got that it takes a really special officer to not let their emotions get the best of them, and that takes a lot of training to do that.”
In addition to Thompson, John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, had told the newspaper that he planned to participate in the workshop.
Also on hand for Tuesday’s instruction was Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood – who, as a fellow defendant in the NAACP’s suit, has been subject to the same obligations as the commissioners. Hagood subsequently told The Alamance News that he found the sheriff’s workshop to be a worthwhile experience.
“I thought it was a professional presentation,” he said in an interview Wednesday, “and it met the requirements of the consent order.”
Hagood nevertheless became tight-lipped when asked about the presence of the commissioners at Tuesday’s workshop. The county manager wouldn’t even confirm how many members of the county’s governing board had attended, and he attributed his reticence to the privileged nature of the board’s closed-door conversation about the consent order.
The county manager’s silence isn’t the only indication that the training provision had been a lightning rod for discussion when the commissioners conferred with their lawyers on Monday.
In a separate interview with The Alamance News, Alamance County’s attorney Clyde Albright said that the commissioners were presumably amenable to racial equity training when they signed off on the settlement with the local NAACP.
“It was in the consent order that they approved,” he recalled Wednesday.
Yet, Albright refused to clarify whether the commissioners had realized they would be subject to the training requirement when they accepted the agreement.
“I won’t go into what was discussed in closed session,” he said.