A lunch meeting that had been planned for Friday between current and newly-elected Alamance-Burlington school board members was called off following strenuous objections from Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr.
Boney sent a sternly-worded warning to each of the seven sitting board members – and three newly-elected members, Dan Ingle, Chuck Marsh, and Charles Parker – early Friday after learning of the lunch meeting, which had school board member Ryan Bowden subsequently acknowledged that he’d planned for Friday. [Read text of letter HERE.]
“We have received a troubling report that it is your intention to set up a meeting between yourself, and possibly one or more other members of the current Alamance-Burlington board of education in order to meet clandestinely with the three newly-elected members who won election on November 8, 2022 but who have not yet been sworn into office,” Boney wrote in his letter to Bowden, which was also sent to the six other current and three incoming school board members; ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler; and school board attorney Adam Mitchell of the Tharrington Smith law firm in Raleigh.
Marsh, Ingle, and Parker are currently scheduled to be sworn into office on December 5.
“We would strongly urge you, other current school board members, and the three newly-elected members to abstain from this type of organized, ostensibly ‘unofficial’ meeting before they are sworn in as members,” Boney wrote. “We believe this would constitute a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law, which envisions all deliberations of the members of public bodies to be conducted in an open session of those public bodies.
“We also question whether you, or they, may be subject to various ethical violations of North Carolina law, in addition to and beyond the specific provisions of the Open Meetings Law by attending and discussing potential policy or issues,” the publisher elaborated in his letter to Bowden. “It is not clear what the purpose of such a gathering would be, but none of the speculative possibilities are very flattering – neither to you nor to the newly-elected, future members of the school board.”
Boney also asked that, if the lunch meeting were to be held as planned, for an Alamance News reporter to be allowed to attend in order to hear and report on the discussion.
Bowden responded to Boney shortly before 12:00 noon Friday, saying that he had canceled the lunch meeting because his daughter was home sick.
‘Don’t see any foul’
Bowden thanked the publisher for sharing his concerns. “Your input is valued and appreciated,” he wrote in his email to Boney. “Although I don’t see any foul with having lunch (before their oath of office on December 5th) with my new soon-to-be school board colleagues, I respect your opinion on this matter.
“My goal,” Bowden elaborated, “was to allow them to ask questions and hopefully lend a helping hand during their transition to elected officials. This same opportunity was afforded to me before I took office back in 2020… Moving forward and in light of these concerns you have expressed, a one-on-one approach may be better suited.”
Outgoing school board member Wayne Beam, who opted not to seek reelection to a second term this year, said in an email response to the newspaper that he was unaware of the plans to meet for lunch with the three new school board members.
“I know nothing about this, and if true, I agree with you,” Beam wrote Friday morning in his email to The Alamance News. “When I was first elected, my first meeting was the night I was sworn in.”
Beam also went on to thank the newspaper for its coverage of him during his four years on the board, characterizing the newspaper’s reporting as “more than fair,” adding, “It means a great deal to me how I was treated.”
Chairman had declined invitation due to concerns about Open Meetings Law violation
School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves wrote in an email response to the newspaper that she had declined the invitation to attend because of her concerns about the potential violation, or the appearance of one, of the Open Meetings Law.
Ellington-Graves confirmed in her email that she had informed Bowden – who she indicated had offered to take the lead in making the arrangements for the lunch meeting – earlier in the week she “would not be comfortable joining” the group but would contact each of the three newly-elected board members individually so they wouldn’t “assume it was not important to get to know them.”
After Bowden, Ellington-Graves, and Westbrooks were elected in 2020, then-chairman Allison Gant had invited each of the new board members to have coffee, one-on-one, “where she shared copies of the board policies pertaining to board membership, upcoming meeting dates” and answered questions, Ellington-Graves recalled in her email. “I do plan to offer the same one on one opportunity to the newly elected members prior to their oath of office,” Ellington-Graves added.
For his part, in a brief phone interview Friday afternoon, Ingle confirmed that the lunch meeting had been canceled but stressed the impromptu nature of what had been planned.
Ingle also acknowledged Boney’s concerns in an email earlier Friday morning, writing, “Thanks, Tom! Makes perfect sense!”
“If there’s anything that even looks like impropriety,” Ingle added in the subsequent interview, “I’m going to stay away from it.”
Read the newspaper’s editorial views on the subject: https://alamancenews.com/were-just-getting-together-for-a-get-to-know-you-lunch-yeah-right/