Mayor Nancy Vaughan says she is going to make the City Council more transparent, which, as she said, is “good news.”
The City Council has for years done most of its business in small group meetings. These are meetings of less than five city councilmembers, and since there is not a majority of the City Council present the meetings technically don’t fall under the North Carolina open meetings law.
All but the first and the final two discussions of the $126 million bond referendum in 2016 were held in small group meetings. The only information about those meetings available to the public were some worksheets smuggled out by a councilmember and given to the Rhino Times. The public was not invited to, nor even made aware that these discussions were taking place.
Despite the lack of public input, the bonds still passed with overwhelming majorities.
Vaughan said Tuesday, March 27, that it is her intention to open the small group meetings to the public. She said that in the future a public notice will go out about the meetings and the meetings will be recorded. If anyone who cannot attend wants to find out what took place, the recordings will be public records and could be obtained by making a public records request.
Vaughan said, “What I’m going to propose is that all our meetings be open.”
She added, “There is really nothing that we do that people can’t listen to.”
But she noted that didn’t include sessions to discuss personnel, economic incentive requests, advice from their attorneys or other matters that by law can be held in closed sessions.
All the emails to the members of the City Council are available on the city website. Vaughan said, “The site is cumbersome, but they’re all there.” She said that she didn’t know of another City Council or county board of commissioners in the state that automatically had all of their emails made available to the public.
She said that she has had problems finding emails on the site but that she believed that in the future technology would make the site more user-friendly.
Vaughan also noted that the Public Information Request Tracking System (PIRT) was available online and allowed people to see and access the public records that others had requested.
Vaughan said many of the complaints about the PIRT system came from people who were requesting information that was not a public record.
According to state law, the city has to provide public documents, but doesn’t have to do research for people. The city also has no obligation to provide information that is not a public record.
Vaughan noted that the city had received complaints about not providing a list of the donors to the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts. She said those are records of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro and not of the city, so the city doesn’t have them and can’t provide them, but that doesn’t stop people from complaining.
Vaughan said that her goal was to make the City Council as transparent as possible.
It is fascinating that Vaughan is proposing that small group meetings be opened to the public because the original purpose of small group meetings was for the City Council to be able to meet without having the public present.
When small group meetings were abolished for a few years, the city staff held individual meetings with each councilmember – an extremely tedious and time consuming process for the staff – but it was considered worth the time and effort to keep the public from knowing what the City Council was doing.
The most efficient way for staff to convey information to the City Council is through a work session where the entire City Council is present and the presentation can be given once and discussed once by the City Council.
Vaughan said she soured on regularly scheduled work sessions when it seemed to her they were having work sessions just because one was scheduled and not because there were matters the City Council needed to discuss. There were in fact a number of work sessions where councilmembers left asking why they had been called to a meeting.
A lot of candidates talk about the need for an open government but, once elected, forget all about those promises. If Vaughan is successful in getting small group meetings open to the public that will be a huge step in making the Greensboro City Council more transparent.