Chairs were stacked in the hallway outside the meeting room to accommodate the crowd of more than 40 people. Others stood in the doorway and along the back wall. It was an impressive turnout for a meeting that was announced just four days earlier. Nonetheless, the commissioners largely failed to acknowledge the presence of a very large audience packed cheek to jowl into their very small meeting room.
Chairman Glenn Jones called the special meeting to squeeze in the vote before two new commissioners take office in early December. The board had already held both of its regular meetings for the month, and time was running out to address an issue the county board claims it had been intending to alter for some time — namely an arrangement with the sheriff to feed jail inmates.
Historically, Swain County pays the sheriff to provide meals for inmates. The county sets the sheriff’s salary quite low but allows him to pocket a built-in surplus in the meal contract to bolster his income.
Some of the commissioners wanted to contract with Swain County Hospital to prepare inmate meals instead. That would leave the newly elected sheriff, Curtis Cochran, with the lowest salary of any sheriff in the state unless the commissioners give him a raise.
When the meeting was called to order, Jones immediately called for a closed session.
Before going into closed session, Commissioner David Monteith, who was against the move, spoke up. He requested that Cochran, who was sitting in the front row, join the board in closed session. Monteith said the contract would directly affect Cochran and he should be privy to the discussion.
Commissioner David Anthony challenged Monteith.
“We still have a sheriff,” Anthony said. “With all due respect, and I do respect Mr. Cochran, but we have a sheriff and that’s Bob Ogle. The person that’s going to be affected is our current sheriff, Sheriff Ogle.”
Ogle will only be affected by the contract for three days, however. The meal contract takes effect until Dec. 1, and Ogle leaves office Dec. 4. The contract doesn’t expire until August 2008, spanning a year and nine months of Cochran’s term.
Monteith repeated his request to have Cochran join the closed session and the rest of the board conceded.
Speculation over what commissioners would do when they reappeared was widely discussed among the audience while the board was behind closed doors. When they returned to the meeting room, Jones asked County Manager Kevin King to make a recommendation regarding the contract. King did not make a recommendation, however. Instead, he stated that the board was there to vote one way or the other on a contract with the hospital to provide meals for inmates.
Anthony then made motion to enter the contract. Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay seconded the motion. The vote was 3 to 1, with Monteith dissenting. Commissioner Jeff Waldrop was away on a hunting trip.
A woman in the audience asked Anthony to repeat his motion, complaining that he had spoken too softly for people to understand.
“You mumbled a little bit like I do sometimes when I don’t want anybody to hear me,” Ginny DeBord said, eliciting chuckles from the audience.
Anthony said he was not ashamed of his motion and repeated it louder. As Jones tried to adjourn the meeting, an audience member stood up and asked whether the public would be permitted to speak.
“All we come tonight for is to provide a contract for meals,” Jones said. He adjourned the meeting. Jones, Anthony and Lindsay promptly exited the room out the side door. Monteith remained to talk with the audience.
Several audience members were disappointed they had not been permitted to speak.
“Public comment would have been appropriate, to allow the constituents the atmosphere of at least feeling like they had something to say about it,” said Mike Clampitt, who ran for county commissioner this fall but lost.
“I think the taxpayers should have a say on what goes on with their money,” said Paul Hampton.
McKinley Willis said county commissioners should be more responsive to the public.
“I have several questions I would like some answers to,” Willis said. “I’m getting older and I don’t have much longer to get those answers.”
Audience members also complained about the commissioners holding all their discussions behind closed doors.
Under state law, a board can convene behind closed doors to talk about the price of a contract, but nothing more. The closed-meeting provision protects the government’s bargaining power when negotiating contracts so it doesn’t reveal how much it is willing to pay.
Any discussion on the pros and cons of a contract is supposed to occur in an open meeting, however. The board met behind closed doors for more than 20 minutes. It is not known whether the closed-meeting discussion strayed from the strict topic of negotiating a price for the contract.
Swain County Hospital proposed a price of $3.62 per meal, according to a copy of the contract the county took with them behind closed doors. That’s the same price commissioners approved upon returning from their closed session rather than making a counter offer.