If it looks like a committee and acts like a committee, is it a committee?

What is being called the Cure Violence Working Group made up of four members of the Greensboro City Council and four members of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, certainly looked and acted like a committee, but was it in fact a committee and subject to the North Carolina Open Meetings Law?

According to Frayda Bluestein at the North Carolina School of Government,  as a legal matter that depends.  In answer to a question about whether the Cure Violence working group should have subject to the Open Meetings Law, Bluestein wrote, “I think given the strong policy of transparency in the law, a court would say that if these groups behave like a committee and the council treats them that way, the court likely would conclude that they are committee and subject to the notice and access requirements.”

But because it’s highly unlikely anyone is going to file a lawsuit against the City Council and the Board of Commissioners for having working group meetings in secret, it’s a moot point.

The court of public opinion is a different matter. The question citizens should be asking, is not if having a working group meeting for months to decide how to spend $500,000 a year slips past the open meetings law on a technicality, but is that the way the council and commissioners should conduct public business, in secret behind closed doors.

The secret meetings certainly violated the spirit of the Open Meetings Law which states that the hearings, deliberations and actions of public bodies be conducted openly.

The meetings of the Cure Violence working group, were so secretive that the councilmembers and commissioners who were not members didn’t know what the group was discussing or when they were discussing it.

And what did the group discuss?  What research did the working group do that convinced them that the Cure Violence program is the best program for Greensboro.

If the people knew what the working group knew about the success of the multitude of programs designed to reduce violent crime, it would be far easier to support or oppose spending half a million dollars a year on Cure Violence.  But the public doesn’t know anything about how the decision was made, if any other programs were considered or how much research was done about Cure Violence, because whatever was done was done in secret.

According to the representatives of Cure Violence who spoke to the City Council, Cure Violence has been successful and their statistics prove it.  But they said statistics from law enforcement often don’t reflect the same reduction in crime because Cure Violence maintains data in a different manner than law enforcement.

Did the working group find some independent data that confirmed that Cure Violence actually reduces the number of murders and the amount of violent crime in the cities where it operates.  If it did, the public has right to see that data, as do the councilmembers and commissioners who were not members of the working group.

It appears the purpose of the Cure Violence Working Group was for the city and county to come to an agreement on how to supervise and fund a Cure Violence program in Greensboro, not to find the best way to reduce violent crime and murders.  If other programs were considered and rejected, the public has a right to know what those programs were and why they were rejected. And the public would have access to that information if the meetings had not been held in secret.

The working group not only chose Cure Violence it also decided that a nonprofit run by a member of that working group, City Councilmember Yvonne Johnson, should be awarded the $400,000 contract to run the Cure Violence program.  There is an additional $100,000 contract between Greensboro and Guilford County, and Cure Violence.

In fact, contracting with One Step Further where Johnson is executive director was the only option presented at the joint meeting of the City Council and County Commissioners on Tuesday.  County Commissioner Skip Alston said that the two elected bodies could approve the contracts developed by the working group, or do nothing.

Finally at the joint meeting where approving the contracts was discussed for the first time in public. There was quite a bit of discussion about how and where the vote should take place.

But, no discussion about holding a public hearing or even making the contracts available to the public before the votes were taken.