We’ve seen a lot of excesses, high-handedness, and downright stupid local government actions and decisions over time.
But this week we have to give the all-time award for going off half-cocked with ludicrous, unnecessary, and irresponsible decision-making to the city of Graham and its city manager Megan Garner.
For reasons still not fully explained, but ostensibly because of “security” concerns, Garner took it upon herself to seek a “threat assessment” of the Graham city council chambers.
She got fellow bureaucrats from the North Carolina League of Municipalities to come to Graham to inspect the council chambers and make recommendations for improving its “safety.”
For 57 years – since 1966 – the council chambers have had at least 84 seats for members of the public. For that length of time, we’re unaware of any real, or even imagined, threat to the security of the council.
But Garner took it upon herself, apparently without consultation with the city council, and with absolutely no public discussion or public notification about her plans, to remove a total of 32 seats from the council chambers, lowering its seating capacity from 84 to 52.
In doing so, she also went far beyond the “threat assessment” review, removing many more seats than what had been recommended. It was bad enough that the recommendation was to remove 13 seats; instead Garner had more than twice that number, 32 seats, taken out.
Graham city council chambers have gone from being the largest among the five primary municipal governments in the county with 84 to having capacity for the second smallest number of citizens (52) who can attend a meeting. (Only Elon has fewer seats, about 38. Mebane and Gibsonville have 72; Burlington has 68.)
Apparently the change was prompted by a raucous May 10, 2022 meeting at which BLM protesters inside and outside the chambers voiced their opposition to the city police department’s employment of Douglas Strader, who had been fired from the Greensboro police department the year before.
Apparently at least one member of the city council, Bobby Chin, was so concerned by an outburst toward the end of the May 10, 2022 city council meeting, that a few weeks later he asked what safety measures would be undertaken at the next monthly meeting, on June 14.
“Given the unwanted publicity about tomorrow night’s council meeting,” Chin wrote in a June 13, 2022 email to Garner – reviewed by The Alamance News in response to a public records request about how and why the changes to the council chambers were undertaken – are there going to be increased security measures in place, such as metal detecting wanding, increase police presence, etc? At last month’s council meeting an individual was in the chamber with a concealed weapon. Appreciate your thoughts on the measures being taken to ensure the safety of all those in attendance.”
In response to the newspaper’s questions, Garner says she is unable to confirm Chin’s allegation that someone had a concealed weapon; it is also possible, according to Chin, that there was not yet any “no concealed weapons” sign on the outside of the council chambers in the first place – so that even if someone had a concealed weapon, with a proper permit, they would have been entitled to bring it inside, absent any posted prohibition.
According to the documents furnished to the newspaper, in a June 2 “budget workshop,” councilman Joey Parsons asked about implementing “safety protocols” for the council chamber and city hall in general. He specifically raised the issue of security wands (the equivalent of mobile metal detectors) and implementing “safety protocols.” According to minutes from the meeting, “[Parsons] said the first thing was to replace the side exit door.”
Interesting to note that all public discussion – what little bit there had been – about the side exit door had always involved wanting to make it sound proof. Council members were visibly irritated during that May 10 council meeting, when a few protesters stood outside the door with a bullhorn pointing toward the council chambers.
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Their chants did occasionally disrupt a thought or statement by a council member, as had also happened on an earlier occasion when they used similar tactics.
The source of the protesters’ ire that night was the city’s employment of police officer Douglas Strader; several speakers verbalized that disagreement with his hiring as well as his involvement in a traffic stop at the Pines Apartment complex on Ivey Road during the public comment portion of the meeting.
As for security wands or other screening techniques, we freely admit that 12 years ago, almost to the week, we were critical of the Burlington city council for implementing a practice of having citizens go through metal detectors before entering their semi-monthly meetings. In comparison, that measure, while an inconvenience, and insulting to the law-abiding public, is less onerous than what Graham’s city manager has implemented – which amounts to keeping much of the public out of any meeting altogether.
While all of the rhetoric surrounding the change in council seating has been “safety,” “security,” “protection,” etc., like so many other government policies – recent Covid precautions certainly come to mind – the real effect of the changes sent quite a different message: public participation by the citizens of Graham is discouraged.
This is just one more example of public officials insulating themselves from the public they ostensibly serve. It is an overreaction to a problem for which no evidence has been presented even exists.
As with so many of these “security” measures, the convoluted logic turns on its head the principle that council members are supposed to be public servants. They are supposed to listen to their constituents. But now there will be fewer citizens able to voice their opinions.
The city will no longer provide enough seating for controversial issues for city council meetings on which there’s an outpouring of citizens seeking to attend and/or address the council.
In essence, this new policy demonstrates a flawed philosophy of attempting to wrap the council in a plastic bubble, further removing them from accessibility to the public.
Garner appears to be a master at understatement, vagueness, and misdirection. In an October 21 “weekly report” to council members – a little private missive that she sends out to them each week – Garner tells the council, “The new door and hardware for the Council Chamber has been installed. In accordance with the security assessment provided by the League, some of the audience chairs will be removed to allow for better egress in the event of an emergency.”
“Some” chairs, by Garner’s definition, means lowering the room’s capacity by 38 percent!
We’ve seen too many high-handed local bureaucrats lately who seem to think they, rather than elected officials, are to set all manner of policies. Garner thinks she, and she alone, had the authority to change the seating configuration in the city council chambers. “I am not aware of any statutory obligation that requires the City Council to vote on facility improvements or seating capacity of the Chamber,” she told the newspaper.
We also note that those recommendations that affected the general public have been implemented, but apparently not those requiring any changes that might affect the city’s bureaucrats.
Changes to internal doors in the council chamber – proposing to reverse the doors from swinging into the council chambers to opening instead into an adjacent hallway – have not been done.
The whole episode reminds us of a famous quote from Ben Franklin, “ “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
What’s also clear from examining the public documents that Garner furnished in response to this newspaper’s public records request is that there is an awful lot of “back channel” communication going on between her and council members.
Emails between council members and Garner revealed:
Mayor Jennifer Talley wants to ban cell phones (“like they do in court”); expresses concern that those going to a public bathroom (in the hallway adjacent to the council chambers) might be able to access other parts of city hall; and wants noise proofing of the door to the outside that is in the council chambers. The only one of those topics that was ever discussed in public was the desire to sound proof the door to the outside where protesters occasionally gathered.
Meanwhile, mayor pro tem Ricky Hall wants to include a ban on bringing backpacks into the council chambers.
We think all of these issues, under the umbrella of “security,” are quite a stretch. But if council members, or Garner, want to consider or discuss such issues, they should do so in public, not in little emailed notes back and forth to each other.
Both Garner and council members seem to have lost sight of the fundamentals of North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law, which states as its premise: “Whereas the public bodies that administer the legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, and advisory functions of North Carolina and its political subdivisions exist solely to conduct the people’s business, it is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly.”
Let’s repeat that for emphasis: “it is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these [public bodies] be conducted openly.”
Let us add not through “back rooms,” “off stage,” private emails, or side conversations.