Saturday, January 28, 2023

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

We’re just getting together for a “get-to-know-you” lunch; yeah, right

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We don’t know what’s going around – in the drinking water, or something – but it seems that local public officials are growing more and more fond of huddling up in little secret meetings.

Somehow, they seem to think they just don’t need to let the public know everything they want to talk to each other about.

We think it part of our role as a watchdog over government officials to point out the spread of this phenomenon – and to urge a halt to it.

This week, it was an elite cabal which was being secretly put together by school board member Ryan Bowden.

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Now, in our judgment, Bowden has generally been a conscientious member of the current school board, first elected in 2020.  He appears to have a good grasp on education issues, and has generally been an attentive and active member of the seven-member board.

But on this occasion, he has wandered far afield.

He invited some of his fellow school board members to sit down together with the recently-elected board members for what, after the fact, he described as a sort of “get to know you” lunch (our term, not his).

“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,” Bowden said after this newspaper’s publisher sent a letter objecting to the plans to all current and future school board members.

“My goal,” Bowden elaborated in his response, “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…”

No, as a matter of fact, the only similar outreaches that we’re aware of in past years have been one-on-one meetings, not with multiple new, or current, school board members.

In light of our objections, Bowden acknowledged, “Moving forward and in light of these concerns you have expressed, a one-on-one approach may be better suited.”

We don’t think it is necessary, or appropriate, for Bowden to undertake some sort of one-man welcome committee role.

Especially since, from the outset, he actually tried to get it organized with multiple current members, at least one of whom (the board chairman) wisely told him it wasn’t a good or proper idea.  Indeed, chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves told him she felt it was a violation of the “spirit” of the Open Meetings Law.

We wholeheartedly agree.

It’s also not necessary to have all three new members together simultaneously, either.

There’s a big difference between a board member reaching out individually to an incoming board member whether by phone or at a meeting – whether over a meal or otherwise – versus putting together a group of current elected officials to meet with a group of soon-to-be-seated officials.

Public policy issues are supposed to be discussed, deliberated, and resolved at public meetings, not in a back room or even over lunch among big-wigs in a restaurant.

The primary reason we can speculate about is that Bowden has another agenda altogether, far beyond simply welcoming people he already knows (and in some cases, campaigned with and for).  The grapevine tells us, as well as a common observation, that Bowden might be soliciting votes – hoping to become either chairman or vice chairman of the school board, or trying to line one of those posts up for another board member.

(Bowden hasn’t been very subtle about his preference to depose the longest-serving member, Patsy Simpson, from her role as vice chairman of the board.)

We cannot imagine him actually attempting to leapfrog over current chairman Ellington-Graves, who has been one of the most steadying, thoughtful, and deliberative chairmen in recent school board history.

But regardless of who he’s targeting for change, or who he’s wanting to substitute – whether himself or another ally – such discussions should not be held behind closed doors, or over the table at lunch (neither at a “white tablecloth” establishment or a hot dog stand, either one).

Alternately, he may have had in mind lining up votes on some of his other pet issues and projects.  He’s been gung-ho, for instance, to get the school system to spend $1.2 million to contract for so-called “athletic trainers” for each high school.

We think that effort has been misguided, but all three new members did indicate support for the concept in response to our issues questionnaire.

It’s also not clear to us whether Bowden now hopes to open or re-open other issues, perhaps, where he now believes he has some allies.

Frankly, it really doesn’t matter what were the specific issues he wanted to discuss with new school board members.  Whatever they were, he can state them out loud when they all gather (new and current members), in public, at the December 5 school board meeting in just two weeks, at which time those new members will be sworn in.

We’re certainly relieved that Bowden’s plans for Friday’s clandestine lunch meeting fell through (although we’re sorry it was on account of his child’s illness, rather than recognizing the substantive flaws in his plan).

He and all other members should conduct the public’s business in public.

We hope the new members will get off to a good start, not skulking around with Bowden or any other member – whether at lunch or otherwise.

One of the greatest challenges of school boards and other elected bodies is restoring public trust.  The people inherently suspect – usually with appropriate justification – that much of a public official’s agenda doesn’t include actually representing them.

Avoiding Friday’s lunch spared Bowden and the new members from perpetuating and reinforcing that suspicion.

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