Tuesday, April 16, 2024

New Hanover County commissioners have canceled half of recent agenda meetings. Here’s what’s going on

New Hanover County Government Center
The New Hanover County Government Center. (Port City Daily photo / File

WILMINGTON — County commissioners disagree over whether to hold agenda briefings, with one saying the meetings are essential to good governance and another saying the meetings actually hinder public involvement.

Agenda review meetings are used by many government boards, including the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, as a place to discuss upcoming issues with staff present to help answer questions or clarify proposals. The meetings are not required by statute but are frequently employed to prepare elected officials ahead of votes during regular meetings.

The meetings are publicly announced, open to the public, and are documented in official minutes. But, in spite of that, they are not widely attended or even known about by most residents; they often receive less media attention (in part because official votes are usually reserved for regular meetings) and are less commonly videotaped than regular meetings.

Some governments, like the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, eschew them entirely while others, like the City of Wilmington, use them extensively.

The board of commissioners has used the meeting for around ten years, but in the last year have canceled more than half of them — the county confirmed 11 of 19 meetings have been scrapped. The cancellations have each come from a majority, but not unanimous, decision of the commissioners.

So, why the divide? And what’s at stake?

Transparency, practical concerns

For Commissioner Rob Zapple, the agenda meetings are “essential to how we run a government.”

Zapple said he has consistently argued in favor of holding the meetings along with Chairman Jonathan Barfield, citing both philosophical and practical concerns.

“Besides creating a public perception of non-transparency in the workings of our County Government, there is a very real practical loss in canceling Agenda Briefings,” Zapple said.

One concern is the consent agenda. For many government boards, consent items are discussed at length during an agenda meeting, but during the regular meeting, the items are voted on in quick succession with little or no discussion. Without an agenda meeting, Zapple said, not only do commissioners miss a chance to get feedback from staff before voting, but there’s also no public record of the conversation about those items.

Commissioners can of course request that items be removed from the consent agenda for discussing, Zapple acknowledged. He did add that, for all items, losing the chance to confer with staff — and give staff several days to do research between the agenda and regular meetings — is a detriment to making informed decisions. Since agenda meetings are traditionally held on Thursdays, staff have several days to get answers, instead of “being put on the spot,” during a regular Monday meeting.

Zapple referred to the recent vote to end county funding for WAVE. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Zapple said, it was clear that staff were caught off-guard by the motion, made at the end of a long meeting by Commissioner Julia Olsen-Boseman.

“Because of rules on meetings — if we’re going to have a quorum [majority of members together to discuss county business] we have to schedule it and announce it — it’s hard to have five commissioners in a room together, with staff, so we can discuss county business in an informed way. Losing that opportunity, I think, is a mistake — and it’s something I’ve brought up with commissioners and staff, but, again, this is a decision being made by a majority, not unanimously.”

‘Deprived the public’

Commissioner Woody White agreed that agenda meetings provided an opportunity to discuss important issues and argued that was part of his reason for wanting to do away with them.

“When I was Chairman for the first two years, sometimes the reviews were helpful for staff reviews and updates but more often than not, they led to substantive deliberations on key policy items which I felt deprived the public of meaningful involvement on key matters,” White said. “They are not televised, and the public typically does not show up.  So, I felt that we should cancel them except in specific instances of a large item that needed additional prep going into a full meeting.”

White said that, in the past, other commissioners objected to getting rid of the agenda meetings completely, and so the board began approaching the meetings on a case-by-case basis. White said his view is shared by Vice-Chair Julia Olson-Boseman (and presumably Commissioner Patricia Kusek); White said that when Olson-Boseman joined the board, the majority tipped towards those in favor of canceling more agenda meetings.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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