Closed meetings the norm in Macon
A vast majority of Macon County Board of Commissioners meetings end with a closed session. In fact, commissioners spent more than 400 minutes — over seven hours — conducting business behind closed doors in 2018.
Out of a total of 19 meetings commissioners held in 2018, the board entered into a closed meeting 13 times. Many of those meetings were cited as being closed to protect “attorney-client privilege,” which is allowable under North Carolina’s open meetings law.
After reviewing Macon County’s 2018 agendas and minutes, many of the issues being discussed in closed meetings were eventually made public once the issue was resolved. For example, commissioners held several private meetings to discuss and/or to negotiate settlement agreements with county employees.
Closed session minutes released from a Jan. 9 meeting show that commissioners discussed a Fair Labor Standards Act and N.C. Wage and Hour Act claim against the county by a K-9 officer with the sheriff’s department and the possibility of having to settle with three other officers who also had K-9 responsibilities.
County Attorney Chester Jones also reported to the board about ongoing discussions with the N.C. Department of Transportation regarding right-of-way and utility easement conditions at the county senior center on Wayah Street. No action was taken after the January meeting.
In February, commissioners returned to public session following a 20-minute closed session and explained the outcome of a case involving former Board of Elections Director Kim Bishop. Bishop pled guilty to embezzling about $68,000 from the county, which spurred a civil action against the former employee. The county received a restitution judgment of $68,705, which would take 114 years to recoup if Bishop pays only the minimum $50 a month required. The board then voted to approve a consent judgment that would allow the county to recoup the full amount by filing a claim to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners Risk Management Pool.
Jones also explained that the DOT agreed to pay the county $313,750 and deed over the former Franklin Chamber of Commerce property on Wayah Street to the county in exchange for right-of-ways and easements needed for a roundabout project going in that area. The county is interested in using that property for much-needed additional parking for the senior center. The agreement was passed unanimously.
After a 45-minute closed session March 13, commissioners came back to public session to discuss the details of a settlement. Commissioners approved a $50,000 settlement to Craig Stahl for unpaid wages associated with caring for a K-9 after hours. The K-9 handler issue was discussed once again during a Nov. 13 closed session. Minutes state that Sheriff Robbie Holland discussed cost estimates for settlements and it was discussed at length, but the amounts were not reported in the minutes. The board agreed to reach an agreement in December.
During a Nov. 13 closed session meeting for attorney-client privilege, commissioners talked about a settlement for Macon County Health employee Lisa Marling, who was allegedly unjustly fired without due cause from her job. Once they returned to open session, the board voted to approve $4,331 paid to Marling from the contingency fund.
Another attorney-client privilege discussion was had Sept. 25 specifically related to a personnel matter involving the county Health Department and a settlement agreement with employee Alyssa Roseman. Macon County did not provide closed session minutes from Sept. 25 even though the board’s open minutes from that meeting — a joint meeting with Highlands and Franklin boards held in Highlands — state the board came out of closed session and voted 4-0 to approve the settlement. No details or amount information were documented.
According to Mike Decker, human resources director and deputy clerk to the board, the remaining closed session minutes — from May 8, May 15, June 12, July 10, Aug. 14, Sept. 11 and Dec. 11 — couldn’t be released because the issues being discussed have not yet been resolved. Those issues have to do with real estate acquisition and attorney-client privilege. Overall, the county’s closed session minutes show the county is following proper protocol and provide adequate details, including the time commissioners enter into a closed session and when they come out — a helpful piece of information telling the public how long the issue was being discussed.
The Smoky Mountain News sent the request for all closed session minutes to Macon County on Nov. 28 and the request wasn’t fulfilled until Monday, Feb. 25. The delay was due to Decker being unexpectedly out of the office for medical reasons. To the county’s credit, the staff is usually quick to respond to requests for public documents and even has in-house video recordings of the commissioner meetings that can be watched online. Macon County also provides its meeting agendas, minutes, handouts and video links on its website at www.maconnc.org.