Thursday, May 23, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

No reason public meetings shouldn’t be broadcast; they should at least be recorded


We don’t know what must be in the water that appears to be causing grown adults who are ostensibly “public officials” to think they are some sort of privileged, clubby group that can just get together to discuss the public’s business WITHOUT LETTING THE PUBLIC KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING!

Earlier this month, we chastised the Graham city council, which met for six-and-a-half hours back in December at a “special called meeting” at Graham’s Civic Center, without recording a single word of what was said.

The excuse was that since they were meeting “off site” (i.e., not at city hall), they didn’t record the meeting.

Of course, they seemed to have forgotten that these very same council members had authorized thousands of dollars to upgrade the sound system at that very same civic center just a few months earlier.

- Advertisement -

They had the capability to record proceedings within that venue, and the Graham council special budget meeting could have, and should have, been recorded.

Then last week, Elon’s town council met in their own meeting chambers for four hours, discussing all manner of spending issues associated with the upcoming budget.

We’ll grant that the town’s audio-visuals aren’t the best; the sound from their televised meetings can’t be heard or understood very well.

We’re sure this hasn’t occurred to anyone on Elon’s town council, or perhaps even anyone in Elon’s town government, but maybe they ought to have considered having this fixed – before trundling off to consider a boatload of extraneous expenses for unnecessary programs, projects, and personnel, most of which will, undoubtedly, cost far more than simply fixing their audio-visual capability at town hall.

But we have to give the award for secrecy this week to Alamance County commissioner chairman John Paisley, Jr., who single-handedly and deliberately decided not to allow the broadcast of Monday’s “special meeting.”

Even by Paisley’s own admission, the decision was entirely his own.  He had been asked by the county manager about livestreaming the meeting – and said, effectively, “nah, the people of Alamance County don’t need to hear what we’re going to discuss at this meeting regarding budget issues related to capital expenses.”

It was a monumentally flawed decision, and Paisley should have known better.

Officially, Paisley said he didn’t want to impose on the county’s IT people who were busy getting systems ready for the courts’ conversion to an electronic filing system (which goes live next Monday) – and, he says – he didn’t expect the board’s special meeting to be very long.

We’re sorry, but neither the length of the meeting nor the convenience or preferences of staff or elected officials should outweigh the rights of the public to be informed about the operations of local governments.

Paisley and county commissioner Pam Thompson, though both Republicans, have often been at odds on the dais. And Thompson’s own record on openness is not altogether unblemished – at least not in light of own tenure as chairman of the school board.

In this case, however, Thompson was absolutely correct in questioning, after the fact, whether Paisley even had the authority to decide, unilaterally, that a commissioners’ meeting wouldn’t be broadcast.

And, substantively, she is absolutely right that it was a bone-headed decision (our description, not hers).

We give Paisley this much due: he at least owned up to the decision having been his, and in hindsight, he acknowledged the error in judgment he made in directing that the meeting shouldn’t be broadcast.

Still, this is not the first time the commissioners under Paisley’s watch have, in effect, blocked public access to their discussions.

In what seems almost to be an annual rite of passage, the commissioners slink off to some obscure location every January and huddle for hours on end in a so-called “retreat” where they hear, and discuss, some of the most significant issues of the New Year: these often include recommendations on what might, should, or will be inserted into the upcoming county budget.

Last year, the commissioners hid (our word, not theirs) at Alamance Community College where they were able to avoid having the public’s attentive ears follow their daylong discussions.  It’s no wonder they did this; their clandestine behavior kept the public from hearing their intentions to violate the promise they had all previously made to stick to a “revenue neutral” tax rate for the county in 2023-2024.

This year, their New Year’s conclave was held at the newly-renovated board of elections building, which had been fitted out with – yes, you guessed it, dear reader – a brand new, state-of-the-art sound system.  After all, the board of elections uses the same venue for its meetings, which it generally records – and broadcasts online – much as the commissioners could’ve done had they the mind to do so.

We don’t really care what politicians call their gatherings – whether “special meetings,” “work sessions,” “budget retreats,” or anything else.

If they’re conducting the public’s business, which is the purpose for which they were elected, they should be doing so openly.

And openness includes providing a permanent record of their deliberations.

We realize that government officials are sometimes the last to know about technological advances, but tape recorders have been in use for almost 100 years, and very small, portable varieties are readily available.

For the first two days after the commissioners’ special meeting, county officials had indicated that these proceedings had not even been audio-recorded.  However, the county clerk has now acknowledged that she kept a recording, presumably so she can transcribe accurate minutes from their meeting.

But in our earlier examples – in Graham and Elon, as well as the county’s annual retreats – there wasn’t even any audio tape recording.

There is no current requirement that public meetings be “live-streamed,” or otherwise video recorded.  But with today’s technology, we don’t see much excuse for not providing that higher degree of public access.  (And, just by the way, the public’s tax dollars paid for the highfalutin equipment that sat idle Monday, despite having been purportedly acquired to provide public access to meetings.)

We typically steer clear from a reflexive reaction to say “there ought to be a law. . .,” but, increasingly we think perhaps there should be one in this instance.

In this age of modern technology, it is simply inexcusable to have ostensibly public bodies gathering unto themselves for private powwows about any subject, but especially for tax and spending discussions and decisions, without any permanent record (i.e., a video and/or audio recordings) of what was said, discussed, or decided at their meetings.

An “open meeting” which no one has access to observe (especially after the fact) isn’t much of an open meeting.

We were surprised several years ago that it took the General Assembly enacting a statewide law to require that public boards allow a period for public comments from people in the audience, since some board and councils across the state – though none locally that we’re aware of – were refusing to allow residents to take to the podium to speak.

A potential new recording requirement would benefit the much larger number of residents who aren’t at a particular meeting, but might have a casual, or specific, interest in what was said or done.

While our newspaper provides the most comprehensive coverage of local boards, we do not furnish exact transcripts, which is what a recording does allow.

But neither this newspaper nor individual citizens should have to keep recordings of meetings of local government boards.

That should be the job – and a very fundamental one in our judgment – for the public bodies themselves.

Must Read

Sheriff promotes property tax hike to help fill staff-level vacancies

Alamance County’s board of commissioners has generally given wide berth to a tax hike in years when any of its members are up for...