To CMS, the public is an annoyance

The Observer editorial board

Some of the redacted minutes provided by CMS.
Some of the redacted minutes provided by CMS. Observer photo

Which government body least respects your right to know what it’s doing? It’s a fierce competition, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is a strong contender.

On Monday, July 3, Clayton Wilcox was sworn in as the new CMS superintendent. The school board went behind closed doors that day and approved contracts for a number of members of Wilcox’s team, including some getting substantial raises. There was no public discussion, and the news came out days later.

One controversial contract the board approved that day was for Jody Francisco. His wife, Laura Francisco, is Wilcox’s chief of staff. He was hired for a new job Wilcox created called manager of culinary development, at $85,000 a year.

State law lets public bodies go into private session if they are doing so for one of 10 specific reasons, including personnel matters. But the law also says that minutes of the meeting must be kept. Those minutes are public once releasing them would no longer “frustrate the purpose” of the closed session. The law also says those minutes must be detailed enough “that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired.”

That meeting was 8½ months ago. More than two months ago, the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms asked CMS for those minutes, and for those from all other closed board meetings in 2017. Late Wednesday, the school system finally provided access to the July 3 minutes. CMS General Counsel George Battle III had said he was still trying to locate them.

Eight months after a crucial meeting and the general counsel couldn’t find the minutes.

In fact, after Helms’s request, CMS didn’t provide any minutes for two months. The district finally turned some over on Friday, and they were heavily redacted. It still hasn’t released any from the last five months of last year.

We’ve said it before: Public affairs belong to the public. Elected officials work for the public, not in hiding from it. Government should operate with an assumption of transparency in almost everything, and shield things from the public only when absolutely necessary.

CMS – and many governments around the state, including Mecklenburg County’s – doesn’t see it that way. Yes, CMS’s entire mission is educating your child, but that doesn’t mean officials there think you should know much about how they operate.

It was the current board chair, Mary McCray, who lied to the public by saying, and then insisting, that Superintendent Heath Morrison was leaving the job to tend to his ailing mother in 2014. She even wanted prosecutors to go after the leaker who “sabotaged” the fiction the board was trying to put over on the public.

Mecklenburg County has had its share of being opaque, too, like when it waited more than a month before telling the public, under pressure from the press, about problems with Pap smear tests at the health department.

The public understands that elected officials sometimes have the right to meet in closed session. They understand minutes of those meetings need to be reviewed and perhaps partially redacted before being released. They also understand that the government works best when it doesn’t operate with a presumption of secrecy.