Putting in overtime: Canton leaders work late to solve mill problems

From left: Mayor Zeb Smathers, Mayor Pro Tem Gail Mull, alderman Tim Shepard, Alderman Ralph Hamlett, Alderwoman Kristina Proctor From left: Mayor Zeb Smathers, Mayor Pro Tem Gail Mull, alderman Tim Shepard, Alderman Ralph Hamlett, Alderwoman Kristina Proctor

Several notable things happened during the Town of Canton’s regular board meeting on May 23, but the meeting was perhaps more notable for something that didn’t happen — a closed session. 

In North Carolina, governments are permitted to go into closed session meetings for any of six basic reasons permitted by statute: to prevent the disclosure of confidential information, to avoid ruining the surprise when someone is to be given an award, to preserve attorney-client privilege, to engage in sensitive economic development conversations, to establish a position on the purchase of real property or to handle personnel matters.

Generally, attorney-client privilege, economic development, real estate and personnel are most common.

In Haywood County, governing boards go into closed session after the regular meeting has ended, no matter how lengthy that regular meeting has been. When there’s no closed session business to be discussed, there’s no closed session.

Since March 6, 2023, when Pactiv made its mill shutdown announcement, through May 9 of this year, Canton’s government has had plenty of closed session issues to discuss. Only twice has the board not met in closed session at the conclusion of a regular meeting.

Until last week, the last regular meeting without a closed session was held on May 25, 2023.

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Over the course of the 24 regular meetings since the announcement, not including special work sessions, Canton’s governing board has put at least 1,602 minutes of time into closed session meetings, according to public records. That’s the equivalent of nearly 27 hours. By comparison, the amount of time spent in open session was 1,556 minutes.

Of those 27 hours in closed sessions, Canton’s governing board — Mayor Zeb Smathers, Mayor Pro Tem Gail Mull, alderman Ralph Hamlett and Tim Shepard and Alderwoman Kristina Proctor — spent more than two hours on attorney-client matters, more than seven hours on personnel and more than 11 hours on economic development. Another seven or so hours were spent discussing a mixture of the three topics, which are often intertwined.

Sometimes, the closed sessions are relatively short, lasting 30 to 45 minutes. Sometimes, they’re not. The record appears to be a 174-minute closed session on Feb. 8 — after a 77-minute meeting.

At the next meeting, on Feb. 22, the closed session lasted only an hour, however each of the subsequent four meetings through April 25 featured closed sessions right around the two-hour mark.

Administrators including Interim Town Manager Lisa Stinnett, Recovery Officer Nick Scheuer, CFO Natalie Walker and Tax Collector Wanda Lurvey are often present during closed sessions when required. Although Town Attorney William Morgan is paid to be there, administrators aren’t paid any extra when they have to be.

For attending the closed sessions, members of the town’s governing board are paid the same as they are for every other aspect of their duties as elected officials — nothing.

— Cory Vaillancourt, Politics Editor

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