The City Council will head to Wilmington next month for a three-day planning retreat expected to cost more than $11,000 – the council’s first out-of-town meeting in more than 20 years.
The council scheduled the Jan. 29-31 coastal trip on Tuesday after a recommendation from new City Manager Ruffin Hall. Hall wants the council to develop a new strategic plan, and he said the meeting will be more productive if council members leave Raleigh behind.
“The primary reason is to focus the board as well as the staff on doing some very high-level strategic work without the level of distractions that can occur when you’re in town,” he said during a special meeting Tuesday to plan the retreat. “It allows the group to be able to work in the evenings.”
The council looked at several possible locations for the meetings, including the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, the Grove Park Inn in Asheville and the Pinehurst Resort. The consensus was to pick the cheapest option on the list: the Hilton Riverside in Wilmington, with a cost estimate of $11,341 for hotel rooms, meeting space and meals.
“It’s not a resort, it’s just a little (drive) away timewise, it’s cheapest, and I like the beach,” Councilman Bonner Gaylord said, joking that he could go surfing while in town. “We’re not going to be enjoying the benefits of a resort.”
Educational trip suggested
Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said she’s against the plan. “It’s an optic issue for me,” she said, referring to how the expense might be perceived by taxpayers.
Baldwin said she’s not against out-of-town travel but thinks it should be an educational trip. She suggested Charlotte as a possible alternative because the council could check out the Queen City’s light rail and other transit resources – the envy of many in Raleigh.
“I would like to go someplace where I could learn something as opposed to going someplace where I won’t learn something,” she said.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane said Charlotte might be a better fit for a later trip focused on transit issues. “I don’t think it’s a transit retreat,” she said.
McFarlane is the first mayor since Avery Upchurch – who served from 1983 to 1993 – to hold an out-of-town retreat, according to longtime City Attorney Tom McCormick. McFarlane’s first retreat last year was a one-day meeting at the Carolina Mudcats stadium in Zebulon.
‘Expense can be controversial’
McFarlane’s predecessor, Charles Meeker, said he preferred to hold retreats in Raleigh during his term. He typically picked low-cost locations such as the city’s Walnut Creek Wetlands Center and the convention center, which were easily accessible to any city residents or news media that wanted to listen in on the discussions.
“The city of Raleigh was always a very good place to do business in terms of facilities and the staff being present,” Meeker said. “If members of the public wanted to view the retreat, having it in town made that easier. ... Quite often that (travel) expense can be controversial and not viewed well by the public.”
McCormick said the last out-of-town retreat was in Pinehurst. The 1990 weekend trip under Upchurch included a debate over whether to raze the Raleigh Civic Center. McCormick said that meeting – along with an earlier retreat in Durham County – were among the most productive he’s attended since he was hired decades ago.
“The real beneficial part of it was having two nights when the council members could interact with each other and with staff members in a completely informal setting,” he said.
No tab yet for facilitator
While out-of-town meetings are rare for Raleigh, Hall noted that Charlotte – where he was assistant city manager until November – typically alternates between locations such as Greensboro and in-town sites. “I don’t think it’s something we have to do all the time or every year,” he said.
The Cary Town Council has gone out of town for its past two retreats, spending $14,464 at the Wilmington Hilton in 2012 and $12,820 at the Doubletree in New Bern this year. Durham’s council, however, has stayed in town for retreats in recent years, and so has Atlanta’s.
The Raleigh council plans to hire an outside facilitator to moderate the meeting, to be attended by the eight council members and about a dozen staffers. No cost estimate was provided at Tuesday’s meeting – it wasn’t included in Hall’s $11,341 projection – but Cary’s retreat facilitator cost the town $4,700 this year.
Hopes for better communication
McFarlane said she hopes the facilitated meetings will improve communication among the council and city staff. Communication problems were cited when the council voted this year to fire longtime City Manager Russell Allen.
At the Wilmington retreat, the council will begin work on a strategic plan that will guide the work of city government in the years to come.
“For me, it’s defining where we are, deciding where we want to go and what we want to become, and finding out how we’re going to achieve it,” Councilman Wayne Maiorano said.