At the March 18 Town Board meeting, commissioners amended the town’s Code of Ethics to include a sixth element regarding disclosing closed session information to the public under the threat of censure.
As outlined, the purpose of a code of ethics is to establish guidelines for ethical standards of conduct for board members and to provide guidance in determining what conduct is appropriate in particular cases. It should not, however, be considered a substitute for the law or for a board member’s best judgment.
The Code of Ethics was in the February agenda packet and during the closed session, Town Attorney J.K. Coward urged the board to consider adding verbiage about closed session violations, but it wasn’t adopted until recently.
Regarding the code in general, Attorney Coward suggested that sanctions be attached because “as in the jurisprudential arena, laws without sanctions are just suggestions.”
Regarding closed sessions, Coward said as per the definition of a closed session and the purpose thereof, a board member who is privy to closed session information is not at liberty to divulge it to the public.
“Nothing in a closed session is supposed to be made public, otherwise why have a closed session?” he asked.
This was prompted when closed session information was distorted and then given to an outside party – NC Broadband – which then alleged the town had acted illegally regarding awarding its fiber contract to Hotwire Communications.
Earlier this month, Attorney Coward reiterated that not only had nothing illegal transpired during the closed session and no decision was made.
The sixth item concerning closed sessions reads: “Town Board members shall not disclose the content of things discussed in a legally called closed sessions to any person not in attendance at that session, unless authorized by the Board or ordered by court to do so. Failure by the member to abide by this provision shall subject the member to censure.”
Censure is a formal, and public, group condemnation of an individual, often a group member, whose actions run counter to the group’s acceptable standards for individual behavior. Like a reprimand, a censure does not remove a member from their office, so they retain their title, stature, and power to vote.
The issue of voting was also brought up at the meeting. In December, Commissioner Marc Hehn said he didn’t want to vote on moving the Laurel Street Alley off the funeral home property – basically realigning it properly. Hehn’s objection stemmed from the decision the board made in November concerning a road in the proposed Freeman subdivision off Sherwood Forest. He objected to the town not adhering to its subdivision ordinance requirement regarding roads and felt that the issue needed to be discussed further before any other issue on roads be considered.
In November, the prospective owner of the Freeman subdivision asked to dedicate the rights-of-way of South Drive, that crosses the property, to the town since it was already in use by the town and other neighbors.
Since the road didn’t meet the town’s subdivision standards, a discussion ensued. However, since there was a legitimate erosion concern, the board voted to make an exception. It accepted the road with no obligation to maintain it more than is currently being done – acknowledging that town specifications were not met and the only reason the road was accepted was due to environmental concerns.
The board voted 4 to 1 (Hehn voted “nay”). This prompted the mayor to request the Land Use Committee review the policy for changes to the subdivision ordinance to make exceptions for such instances in the future.
Because Hehn disagreed with the way the town was dealing with “roads” he said his lawyer told him he didn’t have to vote if doing so went against his views. Furthermore, he thought not voting was equivalent to a “nay” vote.
However, as per state statute, a commissioner can only abstain from voting if the request is OK’d by a majority vote and only if it is due to a financial conflict of interest. Hehn said he didn’t have a financial interest but he was concerned that the board was doing something outside the rules of North Carolina.
Attorney Coward made it clear that he has never witnessed the Highlands Town Board doing anything illegal in its open or closed sessions, but if so, he wouldn’t allow it. If not excused, the board member’s vote is automatically a “yes” even if they don’t cast a vote.
Also, if a present member withdraws [from the meeting] without being excused by a majority vote, the vote is recorded as an affirmative vote.
By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper