EDITORIAL: Forced silence says more than words ever could

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There could be some new faces soon on the Mitchell County Board of Commissioners, so it seems to be an appropriate time to make known some basic rules protected by North Carolina’s open government regulations.

We do this now because this past Monday, we experienced what could have been the most intentional attempt to silence critics of our county government in history. 

When multiple former DSS employees signed up for public comment at the Monday, March 2, regular meeting of the Mitchell County Board of Commissioners, those people, every one of them, were taken into a closed session and forced to speak about their grievances in front of the commissioners, the DSS director and the DSS attorney. 

It was yet another intimidation tactic employed by the DSS director and supported, and sometimes mimicked, by at least some members of the board of commissioners. 

At least two of the former employees told this newspaper they were scolded and basically dismissed by two of the commissioners – you can guess which two – when expressing their reasons for why they left the department and the backlash they have suffered since doing so. 

This is not transparency and goes against the very purpose for which open government laws were intended. These former DSS employees had legitimate concerns the public should know about but were told because the DSS director is a county employee their statements couldn’t be made in public. 

There are exceptions, such as details involving the employment of a particular person, legal matters or negotiations that could affect the outcome, which rightfully should be discussed in closed executive sessions. But none of these applied at the meeting this past Monday night. We are currently collecting the statements that were silenced and will soon give a voice to the voiceless.

Erring on the side of more information is always better, especially in a small town where rumors may be far worse than the truth.

Some residents from Mitchell County have been forced to endure a sort of battle of wits with elected officials who don’t seem interested in being responsive to those who elected them. Our elected officials have restricted access to public comments during an open meeting to avoid letting certain speakers talk about certain issues. 

Questions about why anyone would seek to be elected to a government body and then not interact with their constituents is another issue, to be addressed between individual officials and those who elect them. 

But a board as a whole should not dodge its responsibility and put up roadblocks to anyone who wishes to address an issue before it or otherwise comment on the body, its members or the community it is elected to serve.