Almost 40% reduction, from 84 seats to 52, moves city from largest audience
to next to smallest among top five municipalities in county
Graham city manager Megan Garner has removed nearly 40 percent of the seating in the city council’s meeting chambers, a reduction she says was in response to the council’s safety concerns and a subsequent “security assessment” by the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
Garner insisted this week that the changes required no vote by the council or review by the city’s attorneys.
The N.C. League of Municipalities (NCLM) originally began in the early 1900s as a lobbying organization but today works closely with state legislators on state laws pertaining to municipal finances and other matters pertaining to cities and towns. The NCLM has a 12-member board of directors, made up of mayors and council members from 12 municipal “districts” across the state, as well as 19 “at-large” members who are elected officials, city government employees, and affiliated organizations, according to the league’s description.
The NCLM also is the insurance carrier for the city of Graham and other N.C. cities and towns.
Asked this week about the basis for her decision to reduce the number of seats in the council’s meeting chambers, from 84 to 52 seats, Garner said, “We were implementing elements of the recommendations of the security assessment provided by the League of Municipalities, which is our property and liability carrier.”
Garner told The Alamance News Tuesday that the seating reduction required no consideration or vote by the city council. Nor did the decision require consultation with the city’s attorney, she insisted. “Security improvements recommended by our insurance carrier are not something that would typically require legal review,” Garner said Tuesday in response to the newspaper’s inquiry.
Asked this week why more seats were removed than the consultants recommended, Garner told the newspaper that the new seating configuration allows for handicap accessibility, particularly in the front row. “Removing only one seat provided an additional 23 inches where removing two provided more than 36 inches,” the city manager explained Wednesday. “A walker or wheelchair would not have been able to access the side [aisle] with only 23 inches. If the back row on one side was not removed, the removal of the seats would not have allowed for a means of egress as anyone exiting from the side would be stuck once they got to the back.”
Documents that the city furnished this week in response to a public records request by The Alamance News outlined the chain of events that preceded the reduction in the seating capacity inside the council’s chambers.
Email exchanges between Garner, Graham mayor Jennifer Talley, and two council members (Bobby Chin and mayor pro tem Ricky Hall) in June 2022 had characterized a visit to the Graham city hall later that same month, by several risk management consultants for the NCLM, as a “threat assessment.”
The issue initially emerged during a budget work session on June 2, 2022 – several weeks after a tense city council meeting on May 10, 2022, when approximately two dozen protesters demanded the firing of a Graham police officer who has repeatedly drawn criticism since his hiring in March 2021.
During a brief discussion at the June 2022 budget work session, councilman Joey Parsons asked about implementing safety protocols for the council’s chambers and city hall; and Garner said that the NCLM could provide a free risk assessment “and would make recommendations in conjunction” with the Graham police department.
Chin appeared to have made the next overture to Garner in a June 13, 2022 email, based on documents the city furnished this week.
Unconfirmed report of concealed weapon at May 2022 council meeting
“Given the unwanted publicity about tomorrow night’s council meeting, are there going to be increased security measures in place, such as metal detecting wanding, [increased] police presence, etc.?” Chin wrote in his email to Garner. “At last month’s council meeting an individual was in the chamber with a concealed weapon.”
“To my knowledge, this was not confirmed,” Garner said Wednesday, referring to Chin’s concern about a person having a concealed weapon during the May 10, 2022 meeting. [The Graham police department hadn’t responded to a separate inquiry from the newspaper by press time Wednesday night.]
State law allows an individual who has been issued a concealed carry permit to carry a (properly holstered) handgun into a city-owned building, if no prohibition is posted and providing the building is not also occupied by a U.S. senator or congressman, according to Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson, whose department is responsible for issuing pistol purchase permits and concealed carry permits.
Garner’s subsequent email to Chin on June 14, 2022, seemed to indicate no such prohibition had been posted at city hall as of May 2022.
“Chief [Kristy] Cole and I have I have been in regular communication regarding the meeting and there will be an increased police presence tonight,” Garner wrote. “Similar to the May meeting, many of these officers will not be visible to the public. The [police department] does not have any metal detecting wands. Regarding the concealed carry, we now have signage at the entrances notifying people that concealed weapons are not permitted and we’ve been in communication with [the police department] regarding one specific individual we believe may have violated that. Additionally, we’ve already reached out to the League for them to come on site this month to perform a threat assessment.”
In a brief phone interview Wednesday, Chin told The Alamance News that a notice prohibiting concealed handguns on the premises had been posted at city hall in May 2022. “It was brought to my attention by a Graham policeman who was there” that a member of the audience had a concealed weapon, Chin recalled Wednesday. “When you come in city hall, it says, ‘concealed weapons prohibited.’”
Mayor wants to ban cell phones in council chambers
For her part, in a June 14 email to Garner, Talley had asked for the “security assessment” to include a prohibition on cell phones, as well as several other potential recommendations. The mayor also expressed concerns in her June 14 email to Garner about the fact that anyone who used the restrooms at city hall would also have access to “the rest of the building.” Talley also asked in her email to the city manager for an exterior door leading out of the chambers to be secured and “noise proofed.”
Talley’s request to soundproof part or all of the chambers appears to have followed a protest outside city hall on May 10, 2022, coinciding with the council’s meeting inside – and at one point erupted with an audience member, Jason Keck of Mebane, yelling at the council, before he was asked to leave the premises.
During the first 2½ hours of the May 10, 2022 council meeting, at least one protester stood outside city hall, shouting over a bullhorn, calling for Graham police officer Douglas Strader to be fired for his handling of the arrests of three residents at The Pines apartments off Ivey Road following a traffic stop on April 21, 2022.
For his part, councilman and mayor pro tem Ricky Hall asked Garner in a June 14 email to include backpacks on a list of items that would be prohibited inside the council’s meeting chambers.
In her June 14, 2022 email response to Chin’s request for increased security for that evening’s meeting, Garner included a list of items that Burlington’s city council prohibits at its meetings. She wrote, “Burlington has the following posted on their website: ‘All attendees of City Council meetings must [pass] through security screenings before entering the Council Chambers. Please view the list of items prohibited at Council meetings.’”
Garner also told Chin in her June 14 email that the NCLM would be coming later that month to perform a “threat assessment.”
“Once we know the specific areas for improvement, we’ll prepare a security policy and make sure it’s something [the] Council is comfortable with,” Garner wrote.
However, neither Talley’s nor Hall’s requests – nor Chin’s broader concern about ensuring public safety during council meetings – were mentioned in the subsequent summary report the NCLM provided to the city following an onside visit on June 29, 2022.
City manager out of the office when consultants conducted ‘threat assessment’
Garner was not present for the visit, based on emails and other documents that the city furnished this week in response to the newspaper’s public records request.
“I was out of the office when you were on site to conduct the threat assessment so I wanted to follow up to see if there is or will be a written summary we can use to assist in making improvements,” Garner wrote in a July 12, 2022 email to Matthew Selves, a public safety risk management consultant for the NCLM who visited city hall in late June. Selves confirmed that he would send the report to Garner and assistant city manager Aaron Hall once it was completed.
The NCLM report, dated July 14, 2022 and emailed to the city on July 18, outlined six recommendations.
Though city officials had previously characterized the forthcoming report as a “threat assessment” or “security assessment,” the NCLM report appears to dwell exclusively on issues related to risk management – i.e., recommendations seemingly intended to reduce the risk of future lawsuits and other claims stemming from injuries and/or safety hazards.
The NCLM describes its risk management services and onsite assessments as aimed at “helping members protect themselves and take proactive steps to reduce their risk exposures. “We maintain a team of professional risk management and employee safety consultants” for towns and municipalities that pay into to the NCLM Workers’ Compensation or Property and Casualty Trusts, i.e., insurance pools, according to the organization’s description of these services. The NCLM also provides training to help cities and towns develop safety programs; conducts “hazard identification and property surveys”; and conducts risk management reviews for municipal law enforcement.
Two NCLM consultants – Tom Anderson, statewide director of risk control, and Matthew Selves, public safety risk management consultant – met with assistant city manager Aaron Holland, as well as Graham police Capt. Tony Velez on June 29, 2022, according to the summary report that the organization subsequently provided to the city.
“During this meeting, a site security assessment was conducted of the City’s Council Chambers,” the report states. During this visit, “several areas were identified as possible items for improvement.”
The NCLM consultants offered six recommendations in their summary report. These include: Replace a door leading from the council chambers with a solid steel door and installing a handicap-accessible ramp with handrails to the sidewalk on the South Main Street side of the building; replace stadium seats “with interlocking padded cushion chairs” and remove seats along exterior walls to “allow for better egress” in an emergency; move the podium forward to improve egress; reverse the direction that two doors leading to an adjoining hallway open, install push bar openers on the doors, and install a remote access button, as well as “controlled access technology”; never prop open doors that lead to the offices inside city hall; and have all elected officials and staff complete active shooter response training.
City takes seating reduction a step further than consultants recommended
The illustration included in the summary report from the NCLM showed a recommendation for removing one line of seats from each side of the council chambers.
Instead, the city removed two lines of seats on each side of the chambers and one row of seats at the back of the left side.
At the conclusion of the report, Selves noted that the city could apply for two types of NCLM Risk Management Services (RMS) safety grants – which he specified are for “property liability and worker’s comp” – in order to receive up to $5,000 in reimbursement for costs associated with implementing the consultants’ recommendations.
The RMS Safety grants were designated to help cities and towns “purchase equipment and services that will significantly reduce the potential for future workers’ compensation, property/casualty, or liability insurance claims,” according to the 2022 NCLM insurance pool safety grant rules.
A staff report for the week of February 3, 2023, which Garner furnished in response to the newspaper’s public records request, stated that the seats had been removed from the council’s chambers earlier in the week “in accordance with the League’s security assessment…to allow for better egress/exodus/escape in the case of an emergency situation.”
A new solid steel door that helps to reduce noise from outside has been installed at the side exit from the council’s chambers, Garner told the newspaper Wednesday. The new side door opens onto a new ADA-compliant sidewalk, which according to Graham inspections director Jimmy Lloyd was built “on grade,” eliminating the need for a handrail, the city manager said.
The work was performed by contractors, Garner said Wednesday. “The seat removal was $1,200, the door was $1,446, and the ramp was $2,500,” she told the newspaper, adding that the city has not yet “submitted for the grant because we were not sure of the timing of the expenses and did not want to request funds that we may not be able to expend this fiscal year.”
The city has not yet moved the podium, or reversed the direction into which the doors to the adjoining offices open, as the NCLM consultants recommended.
The documents that the city furnished in response to the newspaper’s public records request do not reveal whether a specific threat to the staff, council, or the general public had precipitated the change.
Read the newspaper’s editorial view on the changes made and the explanation given: https://alamancenews.com/graham-restricts-public-access-in-the-name-of-security/
COMPARISON WITH OTHER LOCAL MUNICIPAL MEETING CHAMBERS
Graham’s city council chambers went from being the largest among the five top municipalities in the county to the second smallest. Burlington’s (above) seats 68 in the audience – with an overflow room downstairs, when necessary. Gibsonville’s and Mebane’s (shown below) have 72.
Only Elon (not shown), with 38, has fewer seats (in the form of chairs), although extra chairs can also be set up in the entryway to provide additional seating, according to town clerk DiAnne Enoch.