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Salisbury City Council’s closed meetings end without public action

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — City council members on Monday night concluded months of closed sessions related to a personnel matter the same way they began the discussions: quietly.

Days later, the exact nature of the personnel matter they were considering remains unclear.

Council members have been meeting in closed sessions since late August to discuss personnel issues. On some occasions, the private portions of the meetings were noticed as usual in meeting agendas. Other times, the closed meetings were added to the regular agenda at council meetings. In one instance, on Saturday, Oct. 10 at 12:36 p.m., the city of Salisbury sent out a notice about an emergency meeting to take place less than 30 minutes later. Nearly all of the “emergency meeting” occurred in closed session.

But council members have declined to disclose any details regarding the matter discussed, and the city has also declined to provide some correspondence in response to Salisbury Post public records requests, citing a general personnel exemption to the state’s public records law.

Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins, who wasn’t present during Monday’s closed meeting, stated she had no comments regarding the matter.

Mayor Karen Alexander said last week that she was concerned that any breach of confidentiality could result in a lawsuit by anyone involved in the personnel issue, but that the public should have faith the council is handling the matter “in the absolute, most professional and legal way.”

In mid-October, the Post submitted a public records request to the city, requesting copies of all emails sent by city department directors to Salisbury City Council members in the previous six months, and vice versa. Additionally, the Post requested the names, costs and descriptions of work performed by attorneys hired by the city of Salisbury, not including city attorney Graham Corriher, in the previous two years.

The records show that the city spent approximately $2,926 on general personnel advice in 2018 and $18,529 on general personnel advice in 2019.

Records show $2,275 has been spent on general personnel advice since August. On two separate occasions, the city has used the services of Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP, which has offices in Charlotte, Raleigh and Wilmington.

In response to the Post’s request, the city said some emails sent to and from city council members and staff related to the closed sessions were not provided. The city did not state how many records were excluded.

The Post also requested the subject line, date, recipient and sender of emails and any contents of emails that otherwise did not contain personnel information. City Clerk Kelly Baker’s response was that all of an email is excluded from a public records requirements if part of it contains personnel information.

Corriher told the Post on Wednesday that in cases where emails contain a mix of personnel records and public record, no part of the email would be disclosed.

Amanda Martin, an attorney for the North Carolina Press Association, told the Post on Wednesday that she disagrees with the idea that the entire record would be protected from disclosure, adding that a provision in the state’s law maintains that, if confidential and nonconfidential information are co-mingled, public agencies must redact the confidential information and disclose the information considered public record.

“If it is necessary to separate confidential from nonconfidential information in order to permit the inspection, examination, or copying of the public records, the public agency shall bear the cost of such separation,” states N.C. General Statute § 132-6 (c).

Martin referenced the case of “News Reporter Co Inc v. Columbus County” that made it to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in July 2007. In that case, the appeal arose after Columbus County and its then-county manager James Varner refused to make available to newspapers a letter prepared by a county employee and sent to the county board of commissioners regarding the county’s medical director contract.

The Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that the trial court was wrong in its ruling that the entire letter was protected from disclosure under exceptions to the state’s Public Records Act. The Court of Appeals ruling stated that while portions of the letter are protected from disclosure, those portions can be redacted.

Also on Wednesday, Corriher clarified to the Post that council members have direct authority in the hiring or firing of the city attorney and city manager. The city manager has authority hiring and firing the city clerk. But that doesn’t exclude council members from getting involved with other personnel issues related to city staff and/or city departments.

Corriher said while he didn’t know if the lengths of these discussions are unprecedented, such matters can take a while.

Alexander has previously said it’s not unusual for discussions to span this long. But council member David Post told the Post last week that it is unusual, and that he’s been upset by the length of discussions and number of meetings held for such a matter.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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