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Audio from council meetings to be posted online

Bringing more transparency to city government operations was a major issue during the 2019 municipal election, and now new members of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners are trying to make that happen.

That was evident as the city council gathered Thursday night, when it was scheduled to discuss changes in the way minutes, or official written records of its meetings, are prepared, an issue first raised on Dec. 19.

But this also was accompanied by a request from Commissioner Tom Koch, one of three incoming board members, to bring a new dimension — or two — to the process.

“Do we have the capability of videotaping (meetings) that we could put on our website for everybody to see?” Koch asked.

“That would be as transparent as we can be,” he reasoned.

City Manager Barbara Jones replied that the city government is able to produce audio recordings of meetings, but not video.

The commissioners seemed pleased to at least implement that aspect, approving unanimously a motion by Koch to begin posting audio versions of meetings on the city website soon after they occur.

“Anybody would have access to that to listen to every minute, from the first gavel,” Commissioner Ron Niland said.

There was support Thursday night for also introducing a visual element to the proceedings at some point in the future.

Abbreviated minutes

Koch’s motion further included having an abbreviated version of the minutes prepared by municipal personnel.

The present policy dictates that votes and discussions by board members be summarized in the minutes, while comments of citizens during public forums and public hearings are presented verbatim — or word-for-word of everything said then.

That is actually a scaled-down policy that emerged in early 2017 after city officials had adopted one to have all statements during meetings contained in the minutes, but still produces ponderous material at times.

When voicing objections to that method last month, Niland’s main concern seemed to be the staff time required to type up the minutes, which he said can be 30 pages long in some cases.

City officials’ vote Thursday night is aimed at achieving brevity by simply highlighting what occurs during meetings, the discussion indicated.

Commissioner Jon Cawley, who has been on the board since 2008, said he was OK with that — “as long as there is a record of everything that’s said.”

There was concern Thursday night that just noting who voted yes or no on issues would not provide an explanation as to why a commissioner opposed a certain item. But officials believe the audio recordings will ensure all this is reflected.

“We’re going to try to be as open as we can with everything that we do,” Niland said.

This was evidenced in another way Thursday night when an economic-development matter was moved from the board’s closed session agenda to open session at Niland’s urging. It concerned a technology company’s proposal to build a facility in Piedmont Triad West Corporate Park.

The city government has been accused in recent years of violating the spirit of the state Open Meetings Law pertaining to economic development. It largely addresses the need by a locality to keep negotiations with an industrial prospect secret so it won’t be recruited by a competing community.

Mount Airy’s practice in recent years has seemingly involved a blanket approach to closed-door sessions on economic development which do not involve such competitive situations. This is said to have occurred often regarding the redevelopment of the former Spencer’s textile-manufacturing complex bought by the municipality in 2014.

The commissioners did, however, hold a closed session Thursday night under the attorney-client privilege provision of the Open Meetings Law.

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Commissioner Tom Koch is shown during a meeting Thursday night when he supported greater transparency of Mount Airy council meetings. Tom Koch is shown during a meeting Thursday night when he supported greater transparency of Mount Airy council meetings.

By Tom Joyce

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.



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