The Asheville City Council officially ended its regularly scheduled, private “check-in” meetings Tuesday, a long-awaited step that advocates say will bring more transparency to city government.
A proposal to switch to public work sessions passed unanimously as part of the council’s consent agenda. Meetings held to brief council members on pending or upcoming business will now be attended by the full council and open to the public.
For at least five years, those briefings had been conducted in private with no recordings made or minutes taken. By limiting each check-in to two council members and the mayor, the city avoided the requirements of the state’s open meetings law.
Council member Kim Roney said switching to public meetings is “a step in moving to doing more of the people’s work in public, ensuring that taxpayer-funded, regularly scheduled meetings of Council can be an opportunity to engage the public and educate the public while we educate ourselves.”
Residents and open-government advocates had objected to check-ins for at least a year, but until recently, a majority of council members supported the sessions, saying they provided an opportunity to learn and ask questions without fear of public backlash.
Last month, Asheville Watchdog detailed the practice after the public was denied access to check-ins on one of the city’s worst crises in recent memory: the December water outage that left thousands without water for days.
“A lot of folks in the community have brought this up; there’s been conversations in the press,” said Council member Maggie Ullman. “I think it’s good for us to try new things. . .The public will be along for the ride with us, so let us know how it’s going as we experiment with this format.”
Ullman and Roney were the only council members to speak on the matter.
Nina Tovish, who unsuccessfully ran for the council in 2022, addressed council members and said the change “opens the door for community members to make informed public comment. . . before a vote is taken on matters because they will have been able to follow along with your deliberations.”
The shift to public work sessions, as part of the consent agenda, was lumped in with 10 other items that were approved with a single motion and vote. Tovish asked the council to cast a separate vote on ending check-ins. That didn’t happen.
“I’m asking each of you to go on the record in support of this change,” Tovish said. “This is an opportunity for public accountability, and this move towards transparency is something that should be celebrated and be seen as a full commitment of the council.”
Left unsaid was whether the council would discontinue check-ins entirely or continue to hold private sessions on larger or more controversial matters.
“I would like to see really clear guidelines,” Tovish said, “if you do continue to have check-ins behind closed doors, that there are not only agendas available for public access, but also that minutes will be available after those meetings.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email email@example.com.