This is what happens when our elected leaders conduct the public’s business in secrecy: They sometimes run afoul of the law.
On Aug. 4 and 5, the Clayton Town Council met behind closed doors to interview the two finalists for town manager. The Friday meeting, as best we can tell, was unlawful, and council members seem to agree.
In a notice emailed to this newspaper, the town said the council would meet in a conference room at The Clayton Center. We sent a reporter there hoping to catch glimpse of one of the two candidates for manager; the council had interviewed the other finalist the day before.
But the council never made it to the conference room, holding the meeting instead in its chambers, in what council members admitted was an apparent violation of North Carolina law. It wasn’t supposed to go down that way. Instead, the council was to have lunch in its chambers and then hold the meeting in the conference room.
Mayor Jody McLeod told our reporter that the idea to stay put was his: The mayor said he saw little point in moving from a room in which everybody was already comfortable. Problem is, North Carolina law disagreed with the mayor; it required the council to meet where it said it would.
What’s troubling to us is that no one thought to tell the mayor that he was suggesting the council run afoul of the law, intentionally or not. Not a fellow council member, not the interim town manager, not the town clerk. No one piped up, at least to our knowledge. Maybe they weren’t thinking either; we certainly hope they weren’t winking at the idea.
After more than three decades in the newspaper business, we’re cynical, partly because government has made us so. But we’ll give the mayor the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was a poor, thoughtless decision, not a deliberate attempt to keep the public from learning anything about someone who might soon be on the town’s payroll.
By the way, we have always thought secret employee searches to be absurd. Clayton’s next town manager will oversee some 170 people and manage an annual budget of roughly $53 million. And yet the people of Clayton, the people who cough up that $53 million and pay generous employee benefits, will have had no say in choosing the manager, who might be as good as former manager Steve Biggs or might not.
The council will no doubt tell the people of Clayton to trust it to choose a good manager for their growing town. But it’s hard to trust a council that will break the law, intentionally or not, to shield the identity of someone who might or might not one day work for the people being kept in the dark.
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