Maggie meetings have a long history of being contentious and rancorous at times. Debate sometimes devolves into a volley of accusations and criticisms between board members and the audience. Town board members are now looking at ways to preserve an open dialogue with the audience during town meetings, with caveats.
“I always hoped as a small town we could have a level of dialogue with the public. It is still my desire to have some of that, but it has come to my attention there has to be some decorum and some rules, and we have to set some limitations,” said Mayor Ron DeSimone.
The town board discussed ways to rein in public comment last week at its monthly “agenda-setting” meeting — an informal session that’s a precursor and rehearsal of sorts for its official meeting held the following week.
Alderman Mike Eveland said if the public doesn’t oblige, the town may have to revoke its generous public comment policy.
Maggie Valley meetings have a more robust public comment arena than most towns.
Legally, local governments have to allow public comment, but it’s usually confined to the beginning of the meeting and limited to three minutes per person. But in Maggie Valley, audience members occasionally chime in during the meeting.
“The free dialogue with the board from the crowd just doesn’t work. We are going to have to set some ground rules for public comment,” DeSimone said.
But DeSimone said he doesn’t want to restrict people to just three minutes, though.
“I would like to do more than that,” DeSimone said.
“We have to find a way to do that,” Eveland agreed.
But, “We don’t necessarily have to let one person talk for 30 minutes,” Alderwoman Saralyn Price said.
Eveland joked the town should buy a giant egg timer, holding his hands up shoulder-width apart.
However, Alderman Philip Wight questioned whether the meetings are really out of control.
“They aren’t out of control unless there is a hot topic,” said Wight. “If there is a hot topic, how else are people supposed to address their government?”
Wight was unable to make the agenda setting meeting last week, but said he would be against any effort to shutdown the public from having a voice in their government.
Price said she has a problem with audience members bashing town employees during the public comment session. That shouldn’t be allowed, she said.
But DeSimone said that’s easier said than done.
“It is a dynamic situation that is moving,” DeSimone said of the public comment periods. “You are trying to keep people from saying a derogatory things about anybody. But you have no idea what is going to come out of their mouth until it comes out of their mouth.”
The town moved its formal public comment period from the traditional slot at beginning of the meeting to the end, hoping that questions from the public about various issues would be answered during the course of the meeting.
But there is a downside. Sometimes, the board will have already voted on an issue that audience members planned to speak out on.
“That is a legitimate gripe so I try to engage the public through the meeting on certain issues,” DeSimone said.
As aldermen formulated their strategy for new meeting protocols last week, it sounded at times as if they were prepping against a guerilla attack.
Eveland stressed the importance of the board having “each other’s backs.”
The board agreed that if they are civil with one another, even when they disagree amongst themselves, that it would help set the overall tone for meetings.
“If this board is showing courtesy to each other, we stand a better chance,” DeSimone said.
The board discussed several ways to make their meetings more orderly and productive — like not getting into a tit-for-tat with audience members. Even though it might make board members seem aloof, they should merely listen rather than try to respond, said DeSimone.
“Someone who walks in the door, they have their thinking process already done. But it is the first time we are hearing it and we haven’t had a chance to think about it yet,” said DeSimone, who has ended up in plenty of debates with audience members himself.
Eveland said if a board member wants to respond, they should raise their hand and wait to be acknowledged by the mayor before piping up. That way, DeSimone can act as a referee or potentially save a board member from losing their temper when firing back.
“I might be all worked up because someone called me a bobo,” Eveland said.
Another wildcard at town meetings has been surprise topics brought up for discussion — or even for a vote — at the 11th hour. Sometimes, aldermen would act in concert with audience members to force discussion of an issue that wasn’t on the agenda.
From now on, once the agenda is crafted, “nothing should be added,” DeSimone said.
“No more blindsiding,” Alderwoman Janet Banks agreed.
The board also talked about what to do when members of the public want a spot on the agenda to say their piece, instead of being relegated to the formal public comment period.
Town Manager Nathan Clark said the town needs to be more judicious than it has.
“To say, ‘Put me on the agenda so I can tell the town that I hate the town’ over and over again, that is not an agenda item,” said Clark.
Clark was just named town manager last month, but early indications are that he will take a more active role enforcing meeting protocols.
“The town manager could have curbed some of that,” Eveland said.
DeSimone said meetings will go smoother if board members talk about issues before the meeting. Legally, the town board can’t discuss matters in private — at least not as a group, according to the N.C. Open Meetings Law.
But board members can have one-on-one conversations with each other. DeSimone suggested funneling everything through him.
“I try to be command central. I try to contact you and talk about it and then contact you and talk about it and then contact you and talk about it,” DeSimone said, going around the boardroom table.
Will it work?
The various meeting protocols discussed last week give DeSimone more control than he’s had in the past.
He can control who speaks at meetings and whether an issue gets put on the agenda. Items can’t be discussed unless they are on the agenda. He can also control the message with other aldermen in his pre-meeting one-on-one discussions.
DeSimone has been criticized by some residents and two of the other aldermen for unilateral, top-down decision making over the past year.
Their has been a public outcry at some meetings in an attempt to hold the mayor accountable, Wight said.
“That would go away if we started having honest, open government,” Wight said.
A new sheriff in town
New meeting protocols in Maggie Valley come amid political and leadership changes for the town: a new majority on the town board and a new town manager.
Two seats on the five-person town board were up for election in November, and both were won by challengers — Mike Eveland and Janet Banks. They both campaigned on a platform of cooperation and unity, pledging to move past the divisiveness that has hamstrung the town in recent years.
Whether discord at Maggie Valley meetings is inevitable or can be cured is anyone’s guess.
It won’t be the first time new board members have vowed to work together in the best interest of the valley and put personal conflicts aside. Indeed, that was a platform of Mayor Ron DeSimone when he ran for mayor and won two years ago.
But the new day for Maggie Valley once again failed to manifest, and after a honeymoon period, the divisiveness crept back, as it had in the past.
“I have certainly done some learning under fire the past two years,” DeSimone said.
The board was locked in a two-to-two stalemate on some issues over the past year because it only had four members — instead of the usual five. A vacancy on the board was created when a former alderman moved away last year. Typically, the other board members would have appointed someone to fill the vacant seat. But the divided board was unable to agree on an appointment, so they waited until election time to let voters choose a replacement.
Now the town board now has a plurality.
Along with the vacant seat finally being filled, one of the sitting alderman, Mike Matthews, was ousted in last month’s election.
And lastly, the town also has a new town manager. Nathan Clark, who had served as town planner for nearly a decade, was named town manager last month after the former town manager resigned amid controversy.