Mayor Nancy McFarlane moved the City Council's discussion of a scheduling conflict behind closed doors Sept. 3, calling the talk a confidential personnel matter because it related to the city manager search process.
Until now, the council has held open meetings about the hiring process, allowing the public to attend as they discuss timelines, recruiting efforts and possible interview questions. McFarlane said no job candidates were discussed at the meeting – the council didn't receive copies of the 80 applications until last Friday afternoon.
“It's a personnel matter, and certainly you have the potential for things to come up in that meeting that are of a sensitive nature,” she said.
McFarlane called for the closed session a few minutes after Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin brought up a concern about the hiring timeline in open session. Baldwin said that the mayor’s Sept. 13 meeting date to select finalists for the manager post won't work for her and Councilman Eugene Weeks. Weeks and Baldwin cast the lone dissenting votes when the council voted to fire longtime manager Russell Allen in April.
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“My sense is that this is the most important meeting we will have, and I wanted to make sure that everyone's voices were heard,” Baldwin said.
No one responded to Baldwin’s concerns during the open meeting, and McFarlane moved on to the next agenda item. After the closed session, the mayor said the private meeting resolved the scheduling issue.
The council will now discuss finalists during two meetings – one on Thursday and one on Friday. Council members at each meeting will identify their top candidates, and those at the Friday session will compile the results and vote on a list of three to five finalists. McFarlane said the decision needs to be made next week to stick to the council’s Oct. 1 search deadline.
“It's not perfect, but it was the best compromise that we could reach,” Baldwin said.
But reaching that compromise behind closed doors raised concerns about whether the session followed the state’s open meeting laws.
“If what they were doing was setting a meeting time or date, why did they go into closed session at all?” said Hugh Stevens, an attorney who represents the N.C. Press Association. “I think it was questionable, at best, whether that justified a closed session.”
But Stevens added that such a meeting wouldn't have a huge impact. “It was probably technically a violation (of meetings law), but there were no real consequences,” he said.
Raleigh’s city attorney, Tom McCormick, said he didn’t attend Sept. 3’s closed session and doesn't know what the council talked about. He said closed sessions are warranted for any personnel-related matters. “I don't think the statute requires them to talk about a specific person,” he said.
‘Left someone out’
The closed meeting came one week after the council decided not to release the names of finalists for the city manager position. Councilman Bonner Gaylord, who had pushed unsuccessfully for a more transparent process, lashed out at the move on Twitter on Thursday, encouraging residents to share their hiring advice on his website, bonnergaylord.com.
“The council left someone out of the city manager search – you,” he wrote. “Post your thoughts, and I'll bring it with me.”