Graham’s city council held a special-called meeting Wednesday afternoon, one of the purposes for which was to rein in staff actions that council members felt were the sole prerogative of the council.
At issue was the recent practice whereby a five-member staff committee, headed by Mary Faucette, the city’s downtown development coordinator, has granted permits for various future events that involve closing off city streets, particularly the 100 block of West Elm Street.
At the council’s regular meeting on February 8, mayor Jennifer Talley raised concerns about whether an existing ordinance that some staff have interpreted as allowing those decisions to be made internally, actually reflects what the council had intended when the measure was adopted.
Talley, then a council member at the time, was insistent earlier this month and on Wednesday that city councils have always retained the ultimate authority to decide whether to close city streets for special events, parades, etc.
But Faucette took the position that the ordinance granted the staff-level Special Events Committee the authority to make such decisions.
Faucette frequently interrupted Talley’s comments, or attempted to talk over her, in what developed into almost a debate.
Talley stressed that the discussion was not “personal,” and not aimed at Faucette per se, but was an attempt to ensure that appropriate procedures were followed so that the “elected board” makes the final decision.
Councilman Bobby Chin echoed Talley’s concerns: “We’re the responsible body,” Chin told Faucette. “But we’re not [currently, under Faucette’s interpretation] having any say-so.”
Meanwhile, councilman Ricky Hall indicated he had requested the special-called meeting on the topic of suspending the authority of the staff-level committee to approve any events or road closures.
The special events committee is comprised of Faucette as chairman; police chief Kristy Cole; fire chief Tommy Cole; public works director Burke Robertson; and recreation department director Brian Faucette, who is Mary Faucette’s husband.
Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr., present to cover the meeting, noted that 11 of the 12 events that Faucette’s committee had approved were in the 100 block of West Elm Street, where the newspaper’s office (114 West Elm) is located.
Boney said that no one had contacted him about seeking any input about the street closures. Boney also noted that, while the committee’s document listed the starting time for the “Thursdays at Seven” events as 5:00 p.m., city staff were often trying to remove cars parked in in front of the newspaper office hours earlier for “set up.”
Boney also questioned how Faucette is allowed to head a committee on which her husband also serves. Boney recalled that, when Mary Faucette was hired, there were assurances given that she would have nothing to do with her husband Brian Faucette’s recreation department; Faucette was already employed by Graham when his wife was hired as the city’s downtown development coordinator.
Instead, six of the events on the committee’s approval list were requested by the recreation department.
Faucette and Talley sparred over whether the suspension of the committee’s approval process applied to requests already granted by the committee.
Talley said she felt all that those listed after February (12 of 13 on the committee’s approval list) should come before the council for final approval.
Talley was particularly incensed, she elaborated after the meeting, that staff had apparently decided to expedite approval of more events and street closures, even after the council had signaled its intention at its meeting earlier this month to modify the ordinance to make more explicit that the council continued to have final approval of events and road closures.
In particular, Talley pointed to an event, not scheduled until October, that proposes to close a portion of North Main Street on a Saturday for a car show. She suggested that Faucette was trying to expedite its approval before the council could change the ordinance to clarify its role as the ultimate arbiter for making those decisions.
North and South Main Street, as part of NC 87, is a DOT-maintained road; in the past, it was described, DOT typically would grant temporary road closures, such as for the Graham Christmas Parade, when the events are of short duration and approved by the council.
Instead, Faucette insisted that the staff committee had authority to seek DOT’s approval to close a state road, even when it had not gone before the city council.
Much of the focus from Talley and Chin was that the special events committee was to do much of the advance legwork to be sure that organizations requesting special events and road closures have taken all the preliminary actions – “checking all the boxes,” as Chin put it – before bringing the issues to the city council for a final decision.
Police chief Cole told the council she appreciated the special events committee, because her department is more aware of when special events – and what she termed the possibility of “upstaffing” would be needed. She said “last-minute approvals are difficult,” when the department had not been made aware of requests that might require an additional police presence.
Cole said prior to the committee’s existence over the past year or so, people seeking to stage an event would often come to her department.
Jamie Paulen, a Hillsborough attorney who both participated in some of the demonstrations in Graham during 2020 and represented various clients who were charged during them, voiced concerns that the process the council was discussing amounted to “prior restraint.”
Talley attempted to assuage her fears, that the council was only dealing with a portion of the ordinance (entitled “Parades, Protests, and Street Events”) dealing with the approval process for the street events.
Janet Nesbitt, another frequent participant at 2020 protests, also expressed concerns.
At the end of about an hour’s discussion, Chin moved to suspend the authority of the special events committee to grant approvals for events, which was adopted unanimously by the four-member council. He also clarified that the council would revisit and decide anew on the 12 events previously approved for 2022 by the committee.
Bonnie Whitaker, who has been designated by the council members to fill their fifth seat, was present in the audience, but did not take part in the discussion or deliberations. She is to be sworn in on March 8.