All should be welcome at town hall meetings

Mar. 12, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

When a county commissioner is stopped at a gate and asked to identify herself before attending a meeting of her own board, there’s reason to cry foul.

And that’s what happened Friday when Lee Commissioner Amy Dalrymple tried to enter Carolina Trace, where the county panel was holding what was billed as a town hall meeting. To her credit, she did not just slink away but rightly called the meeting’s legality into question.

The gathering was technically public, but that’s not saying much when even board members must be cleared or otherwise vetted before being able to attend.

When the meeting was planned, because the development is private, only Trace residents were invited. But questions about the legality of the meeting from The Herald, the public and others prompted a change in the notice.

Don’t misunderstand, we endorse the town hall concept. Lee County Schools Superintendent Andy Bryan has had success with a face-to-face format all over the county — answering questions and hearing constituent concerns. But his venues have been schools, not a gated community where would-be participants could be turned away.

It troubles us greatly, as it should anyone who values transparency in government, that some people were denied entry. It bothers us further that by many accounts, this gathering had a decidedly Republican bent. The person attendees were told to contact if they had trouble at the gate, for example, was Lloyd Jennings — founder of the local chapter of the ultra-conservative Americans for Prosperity.

In addition, early communications from Carolina Trace about the meeting listed Republican Board of Commissioners Candidate Chris deLambert as a “public official.”

At any rate, “restricted access” are two words that should never describe a meeting of any elected body conducting the public’s business. The law is very clear on this point, as explained by Amanda Martin, an open meetings law expert who provides legal counsel for the North Carolina Press Association: citizens are not required to provide any type of identification to attend open meetings — which must only be held in places where any interested party can participate.

Board of Commissioners Chair Charlie Parks has accepted full blame for this well-meaning, if poorly executed, endeavor. The premise of his idea was sound, so we shouldn’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Miscommunication has also been named a culprit. But let’s agree that all involved here should know better than to hold a town hall somewhere that has an entry gate — or allow someone with strong partisan leanings to decide who’s in and who’s out — or place a speaker sign-up sheet next to literature for the local Republican women’s group — or put a GOP candidate on the attendance list as a public official.

There’s plenty of fodder here to give conspiracy theorists their due. And to say the least, people of opposing political stripes weren’t exactly made to feel welcome.

Tony Forgione, president of the Carolina Trace Property Owners Association, told our reporter, in so many words, that the backlash was much ado about nothing — and we couldn’t disagree more. If just one person is disenfranchised from a process that dictates the present and future of his community, and how his tax dollars are spent, then a grievous wrong has occurred.

Granted, no votes were taken at this meeting, but the stated purpose was to brief citizens about the board’s accomplishments and accept comments from them about priorities in the upcoming budget year

Whatever the intent, the result has served to widen the already huge political rifts within our community — at a time when numerous problems require communication and cooperation.

More town halls are planned, and Parks said, “hopefully (this) won’t happen again.” Only time will tell if the lesson has been learned.