Closed sessions easily accessible in Jackson
Of all the local governments in The Smoky Mountain News’ coverage area, Jackson County has some of the most complete closed session minutes and arguably the easiest system for obtaining them.
That’s due both to detailed note-taking from Clerk to the Board Angie Winchester and a 2015 resolution commissioners adopted directing staff to periodically review old closed session minutes and open any minutes “for which purpose of the Closed Session would no longer be frustrated by keeping them closed.”
Since the resolution passed — unanimously, on March 5, 2015 — staff has made it a habit to go through the minutes every six months or so. Due to the resolution, a vote from the board is not necessary to open new minutes — they’re open as soon as staff clear them.
“If you go too far between them, it’s just a big task,” said County Attorney Heather Baker, who works with Winchester when it’s time to decide what’s ready for release. “With us doing it every six months, we can take a half a day to devote to it and just get it done.”
All closed session minutes since November 2014 are included in a black three-ring binder located in Winchester’s office. Discussions still requiring privacy are blocked out in black, but basic information such as the date, location and general purpose of the meeting — as well as a list of those present for the discussion — is available to view. The minutes do not include the times of convening or adjournment.
Baker replied in less than two hours to an initial email Nov. 28 requesting any opened closed session minutes from 2018 and sent the documents about two weeks later, several weeks ahead of the requested deadline of Jan. 4.
Winchester keeps a color-coded list of every closed session held since 2014. Each discussion — some dates have multiple discussions, because sometimes commissioners have more than one closed session topic per occasion — is marked green, meaning that it’s either been released or is a personnel discussion that will never be released, or yellow, meaning that it’s still closed but will continue to be reviewed.
Often, it takes a couple years for minutes to be opened, something that may occur once public inspection would no longer “frustrate the purpose of a closed session.” Of the 21 closed sessions held in 2018 that will be opened at some point — another 33 discussions labeled as personnel or school safety will never be public — only four have yet been opened.
However, all minutes from 2015 are now open — again, with the exception of personnel discussions that are always closed — and only three of 44 discussions from 2016 remain closed. For 2017, eight of 48 closed session discussions remain closed.
Of the four opened minutes from 2018, three are about the Dillsboro water park — a 7-acre county-owned tract that commissioners wanted to turn into a rafting destination, first through a partnership with the Nantahala Outdoor Center and then with local businessman Kelly Custer. Both deals ultimately fell through.
In the first 2018 discussion, on Feb. 5, Economic Development Director Rich Price told commissioners that personal issues in Custer’s life were causing the project to drag out, and commissioners agreed to request an extension from the Golden LEAF Foundation on grant funds awarded for the project, as well as to ask Custer’s attorney for a letter detailing where his situation stood.
In next discussion, on Feb. 19, County Manager Don Adams told the board that he’d sat down with Custer, who said that his personal issues were still in flux and could leave him unable to secure the loans he needed to move forward. As a result, commissioners directed staff to start preparing an agreement to terminate the contract with Custer and to present that document for a board vote.
Commissioners discussed the issue in closed session a final time, on March 5. Adams told the board that the termination agreement was ready for approval by the board and that, while he had talked with someone else interested in developing the property, they were “some time away from” having a formal proposal ready. Commissioners then came out of closed session, voting unanimously in an open meeting to end the agreement with Custer.
The only other opened discussion from 2018 concerned a real estate conversation on Aug. 6, when Adams presented the former Vaya Health Building as a possible location for the Health Department while that building is renovated. The department did ultimately move into that space.
The minutes are quite detailed, with each discussion summarized over multiple paragraphs to include information presented by staff and any questions from commissioners. A similar level of detail exists in minutes for the county’s open session meetings.
“You’re supposed to be able to read it and get a good idea of what happened at the meeting,” said Baker. “There’s a legal standard of what the minutes should reflect and I think she (Winchester) does a good job of meeting that. I don’t think those requirements are any different in closed session than in open session.”