N.C.’s laws should be changed to provide accountability
By Martin Dyckman • Guest Columnist
People generally don’t care to hear how things are done better elsewhere, but there are some things about North Carolina that are done better elsewhere and now is the time to talk about one of them.
The dismissal of Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal is the case in point.
Had it happened in Florida the way it did here, the aldermen would have more on their minds than hiring a new manager. They’d be worrying about how to stay out of jail.
The four-hour closed meeting to vote on her dismissal would have been illegal. So would the private conversations aldermen had among themselves beforehand.
Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law, a model to the nation when it was enacted 49 years ago, contains some of the same exceptions, as for property purchases or litigation strategy, as North Carolina’s statute does. But there is no exception for personnel matters, such as hiring or firing a public employee. That’s a significant difference.
For those closed-door meetings that are allowed, the Florida law requires a transcript be kept and made public when the reason for the secrecy no longer exists. That keeps the discussions from straying into forbidden territory. North Carolina’s law required only the keeping of minutes, which can be intentionally vague.
Everything was done the wrong way in Waynesville. “Positions were set in stone well before I was elected this past November,” Alderman Jon Feichter said in a prepared statement. “Most distressing was it didn’t appear to me that either side would ever change its stance. The longer this situation went on, the more intransigent each faction became. I was concerned that the division would continue and have a negative impact on our decision making going forward.”
How could it happen that the move to fire the manager was “set in stone” before the election? Why wasn’t that known to voters during the municipal election campaign? Why were only a few insiders aware of an intense quarrel of such significance?
It’s because North Carolina law bends backward to the point of collapse to shield public employees and officers from embarrassment — and from accountability for their actions. That’s not a good purpose. Those offices don’t belong to those who occupy them. They belong to the public.
The closed-door plotting to sack Ms. Onieal is a vivid example of why it’s not a good purpose. From how Feichter has explained his vote — to his credit, he’s the only one who has — the unavoidable conclusion is that she was fired to appease veteran town employees who threatened to resign rather than continue to accept her leadership.
The secrecy invited all sorts of conjecture — specifically, the theory that the malcontent employees simply couldn’t hack working for a woman. Was anyone surprised when the first two potential successors turned out to be male?
According to the Digital Media Project, it is optional under North Carolina law — not mandatory — for a board to close a personnel discussion. The aldermen would like you to think they had to close it. They didn’t have to. They shouldn’t have.
I asked Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Florida, how the Sunshine State’s Sunshine law would apply to the Waynesville events. The law, she said, declares that any action taken in violation is void ab initio — from the beginning — so if anyone sued, “the manger would be un-fired.
“There is the option,” she added, “of holding a cure meeting — a meeting held in full compliance with the law where, after a full and frank discussion of the issue, the manager is refired. A cure meeting will protect the action, but it doesn’t cure the violation. And the commissioners could be subject to fines and sanctions and possible prison terms if the court found an intentional violation of law.”
What happened in Waynesville could happen again, there or anywhere in North Carolina, which sorely needs a law like Florida’s. Not someday. Now.
(Martin Dyckman is a retired Florida journalist. He lives in Woodfin.)