The Clayton Town Council held an illegal meeting last week in its search for a town manager.
The mayor and council members interviewed one of the two finalists for the town’s top job in a location other than the one specified in a public notice. Town leaders chalked that up as an innocent mistake, but nevertheless, it was out of step with the state’s open-meetings law.
“My focus was so strong on hiring the right person, I forgot the very important point of being where we said we were going to be,” Mayor Jody McLeod said. “We were having lunch downstairs, and I said, ‘We can just stay here,’ and everyone else said, ‘Let’s just stay here,’ and I didn’t really give it a thought. I totally own that.”
Clayton is wrapping up its more than two-month search for former town manager Steve Biggs’ replacement and held interviews with the two finalists on back-to-back days a week ago. Both interviews were to be held in an upstairs conference room in town hall, but while one was, the other was held in the council’s meeting room.
“We’ve taken some words of wisdom, and this will be a learning experience,” McLeod said. “Those types of details are in place for a reason. ... I think it’s significant to have these rules in place because it keeps governments transparent. That’s really important to me. I’m all about governing in the sunshine.”
Councilman Butch Lawter said the council should have been paying closer attention to its actions.
“We’ll have to eat crow on this one,” Lawter said. “I wish we’d paid closer attention. We learned a significant lesson.”
There is no automatic consequence for violating the state’s open-meetings law, said Frayda Bluestein of the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill. A government can be sued for holding a meeting in a place other than where it said it would meet, but losing in court does little more than admonish a town not to do it again.
“If someone wants to do something about it, they can file a lawsuit,” Bluestein said. “A judge will say, ‘Yep, they did it’ and issue an order not to do it again. If they do it again, they can be held in contempt of that order and issue sanctions to have the town or individual council members pay attorney fees.”
Bluestein said the state’s open-meetings law exists to preserve access to governments but that closed meetings are kind of an exception.
“There’s not much denial of access when we’re talking about a closed meeting,” shes aid.
The council met in closed session again Monday to talk about which candidate to hire and emerged with a consensus, two council members said. McLeod said the town spent the rest of the week checking references and running a background check and could announce the new manager after a closed session on Monday.
“We picked the candidate that is the strongest at strategic planning and is a visionary leader,” the mayor said. “He has strong interpersonal skills and will work great with the public.”
McLeod said the two finalists were both in-state candidates, and he added that the council was looking for familiarity with North Carolina law and procedures.
“We wanted someone well versed in the laws of North Carolina and how to deal with federal agencies,” the mayor said.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson