We never to cease to be surprised, and outraged, that public officials think it is perfectly OK to duck behind closed doors to transact the public’s business.
This week it was members of Mebane’s city council, who were outed by two engineers from the state Department of Transportation, who acknowledged – even thanked city council members – that they had met with “each and every” council member, in essence to lobby them about the proposed changes at five rail crossings.
We do have to give credit to the DOT representatives for their honesty and transparency (sort of); they at least acknowledged the secret conclaves with city council members, something no Mebane city council member revealed.
This is not the way public policy is supposed to be decided. North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law assumes that elected members of public bodies, like the city council, will meet together, and in public, so that their deliberations, comments, and actions can be seen – perhaps overseen – by the public they ostensibly serve.
This is a violation of the spirit of the Open Meetings Law even if it’s not technically illegal – and, quite frankly, we’re not sure but what it is, in fact, patently illegal.
Let’s be plain: these were secret, ostensibly one-on-one, meetings with each member of the city council, intended to persuade them that DOT’s ideas for “improving” the rail crossings at five crossings in Mebane were a great idea.
And they may be.
But we firmly believe that citizens of Mebane deserve to have been included in the process.
Oh, some were quick to point out, citizens were asked their input – four or five years ago.
Apparently, the city and DOT conducted some hearings, workshops, and other “feedback” on what DOT’s rail division wanted to do – back then.
But only two of the original members from that city council – mayor Ed Hooks and councilman Tim Bradley – remain from that group. Since then the council has new members: Sean Ewing, Montrena Hadley, Jonathan White, and Katie Burkholder.
It seems to us that all the members of the council should be held accountable by Mebane residents: both to hear what their representatives’ reactions were and, dare we suggest it, let Mebane residents, themselves, have some input now.
After all, in addition to having four out of six new members of the council, the city also has lots of new residents who weren’t even around four or five years ago when these ideas were first floated by DOT’s rail division.
Yes, and we suspect many of the residents who did weigh in previously were convinced that their objections had scuttled DOT’s ideas of narrowing traffic lanes on Fifth Street, one of the most heavily-traveled roads in the city (from our observation), and erecting concrete barriers that will prevent traffic from making left-hand turns onto Washington Street.
But instead of revisiting the issues and letting current residents and new members of the city council have any public input, DOT took each member into a series of secret meetings, where there is now no record of DOT’s or the council members’ comments, promises, or concerns.
Of particular note, minimized at this week’s hearing by DOT officials, was the most controversial component of the earlier study, that of narrowing the number of northbound lanes over the Fifth Street railroad crossing (from three to two) and putting up the barriers to prevent left turns off of Fifth Street onto the street (Washington Street) that runs parallel to the train tracks.
Now, we don’t know: perhaps citizens will think that more traffic congestion (that we would surely predict) at this rail crossing will be a just nifty idea.
Perhaps they will not mind the inconvenience of not being able to turn left onto Washington Street (while traveling north) in order to reach city hall – or left when going southbound to reach other destinations.
And perhaps they don’t even care what the city council does or says on the matter and will think it perfectly marvelous for the council members to do what they want in private and without any (current) public input whatsoever.
But we guess we’ll never know.
Because all of the discussions about these considerations took place in little private huddles, meetings with the individual members of the city council out of the public’s view.
Apparently, it may be a year or two before these rail crossing changes are actually made.
But we very strongly suspect when they are made, many Mebane residents will be mightily displeased – and wonder how in the world these crazy ideas were allowed to be adopted without them knowing about them.
It is, and will be, because Mebane’s city council members took it upon themselves to keep the information from the public and consider such decisions in secret.
It was an appalling display Monday night.
Mebane council members should be ashamed.
Mebane residents deserved better.