LAURINBURG — Did the Laurinburg City Council violate the state’s open meeting laws?
Mayor Matthew Block thinks it did.
Block and at least one other council member were bothered by a recent discussion in closed session that concerned the mayor meeting alone with City Manager Charles Nichols.
During the closed session, Councilwoman Mary Jo Adams wanted the board to agree that if the mayor meets with the city manager there should be another person present. Adams said she thought the mayor could not be trusted to act professionally when meeting with Nichols.
She said the request was the result of “a tirade of Facebook accusations and things that (the mayor) puts out about the city manager’s family, including his grandfather, his father, his uncle and other things that the mayor was doing that were erratic.”
Block often uses social media to harshly criticize city leaders and decisions he does not agree with.
“You said you were going to do better and you did for a while,” Adams told Block in open session. “But then it just kind of disappeared. I don’t go on Facebook and say things. You talk about Curtis and Drew and everybody. Any kind of meeting with you is suspect.”
Adams’ closed session request did not sit well with the mayor and he argued that it should have been made before the public.
Under state law, the most common things that a public body can discuss in closed sessions are: personnel; to protect confidential or privileged information; to consult with an attorney; or to discuss the location or expansion of industries or businesses.
Block said his understanding of the state’s open meetings law is that ae city council are prohibited from considering qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment or removal of a member of a public body.
“In other words, the council cannot use closed sessions to discuss or complain about each other,” the mayor said.
Block said that he did not believe that the citizens would appreciate Adams trying to interfere with a core function of the mayor such as meeting with the city manager.
He added that the suggestion that he needed “a chaperone” was insulting.
“I just want the citizens to know what Ms. Adams is doing behind closed doors,” Block said. “I want to make clear that Ms. Adams is not willing to work out differences in a professional and private manner. That is what leads us to airing our dirty laundry.”
Councilwoman Mary Evans agreed and said that Adams has attended classes on municipal governance and should have known better. Evans said she also thinks that Adams violated the statue.
“If you want to talk about ethics … you’re going to class and still broke the law,” Evans said.
But Adams said that City Attorney William Floyd was present during the closed meeting and would have advised council if the discussion was illegal or inappropriate. She added that at one time he did stop the discussion.
Floyd said that if the purpose of the closed session was to attack or berate the mayor, then it “was certainly outside the scope” of closed session. He said that he thought that the closed session had been requested to talk about the city manager’s job performance being compromised. The city manager was not present during the closed session.
The city attorney also said that if council members have an issue about where the discussion is going in closed session, they should say something at the time.
“I do not like to have closed session so regimented that council cannot have any kind of discussion without making it so formal that we don’t have the ability for some give-and-take,” Floyd said. “I understand that there is a line that you can cross, but I going to try my best to make sure we don’t cross that line in closed sessions.”