The Asheville City Council this week may end its secretive “check-in” meetings that critics say violate the spirit of a state law meant to ensure elected officials conduct the public’s business in the open.

The council is set to vote Tuesday on an item, embedded in a section of the agenda reserved for non-controversial matters, to begin holding “work sessions” that are open to the public.

The change follows an in-depth look at check-ins last month by Asheville Watchdog and objections from city residents dating back more than a year. 

“It’s about time,” said Nina Tovish, who unsuccessfully ran for the council in 2022 and advocated for open meetings. “But I’m concerned that it was only over time and with ongoing pressure . . . that this change is possible.”

For at least five years, council members have met in regularly scheduled private check-ins with city staff on pending and upcoming business – meetings that are outside of public view. By limiting each session to two council members and the mayor, the city avoids the requirements of the state’s open meetings law; no recordings are made, no minutes taken.

City residents have complained the meetings sow distrust, and city council candidates have run on promises of more transparency, but check-ins continued.

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.

Cop Shortages, Baseball and Plastics Ban

The council had routinely used check-ins to discuss other topics of vital public interest including homeless encampments and shelters, development projects, and the city’s proliferation of hotels, according to agendas, the only public record of the meetings.

More recent check-in agendas, provided to Asheville Watchdog through a public records request, show the council has discussed the makeup of the independent committee reviewing the water outage, an initiative to reduce the use of plastic bags, and staff shortages at the Asheville Police Department. Minor league baseball and McCormick Field, which needs $30 million in upgrades to keep the Asheville Tourists from leaving, have appeared on at least three agendas since September.

Check-ins are relatively rare, Asheville Watchdog found. Raleigh has a similar process, but other city councils and local governments in North Carolina hold work sessions attended by all members that are open to the public.

The agenda for Tuesday’s Asheville council meeting includes a resolution to add “briefing work sessions” to the 2023 meeting schedule. The work sessions would replace private check-ins, Mayor Esther Manheimer confirmed Saturday.

Patrick Conant, an Asheville software developer and open-government advocate, called it a positive step brought on by more public awareness of check-ins and Asheville Watchdog’s “reporting of how Council was briefed and made decisions” during the water outage.

Former City Council candidate Nina Tovish

“There was a crisis, and Council’s response, in my opinion, didn’t look very good,” Conant said. “The fact that they used check-ins only furthered concerns around communication and public trust.”

Tovish said she wants “to believe that council members are now committed to doing their deliberations in public.”

But the council, she said, has “an accountability deficit that has been built up over years, and it’s just difficult to flip a switch and say, ‘Oh, yay, now everything will be above board.’ 

“One wonders,” Tovish said, “whether there will continue to be meetings that happen, essentially off the books.”

‘Raw and More Candid’ 

Council members have defended check-ins, saying they provide a valuable opportunity to become informed and ask questions about topics ahead of public meetings without fear of public backlash.

“I feel like we can be a little raw and more candid,” Council member Sheneika Smith said during a discussion of whether to continue check-ins at the March 2022 annual retreat. “But when we’re in public, ‘lights, camera, action,’ you want to appear refined and knowledgeable.”

City Council Member Sheneika Smith

“Everybody is normally pretty guarded,” Smith said, “because we’re under the public eye.”

North Carolina law requires all official meetings of a public body, defined as a “majority of the members,” to be open to the public and minutes recorded.

By breaking into groups of two council members plus the mayor, Asheville’s check-ins do not constitute a quorum and therefore, according to the city attorney, are not official meetings.

Three separate 90-minute check-ins are held the Thursday before a Tuesday council meeting, each session covering the same agenda and the same material.

By taking up nearly a full day of city staff time, the meetings are inefficient, critics contend. And open-government advocates say they appear designed to evade the intent of the open meetings law.

“They tip-toe up to the line,”  Brooks Fuller, executive director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, told Asheville Watchdog.

New Majority Supports Change

Mayor Manheimer told Asheville Watchdog last month that she would like to switch to public work sessions but until then had not had the support of a majority of the council.

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer

The Watchdog polled council members and found that with the addition of the newest member, Maggie Ullman Berthiaume, that had changed. Four of the seven, including the mayor, said they supported a switch to work sessions.

The public may not hear much at Tuesday’s meeting about why the council is finally making the change or who supports it.

The topic is part of the consent agenda, which means it could be approved along with other unrelated items without discussion or a separate vote.

“No one really has to go on the record about it,” said Tovish, the former city council candidate.

A consent agenda is typically reserved for routine, non-controversial matters expected to easily pass.  Tovish suspects council members came to agreement on ending check-ins – during a check-in.

“Did they come to this decision through some kind of internal vote?” she said. “Of course, we don’t know.”

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 

16 replies on “Let the Sunshine In: City Ending Closed-Door Meetings”

  1. Once again, the importance of solid local news is underscored. Bravo to AVL Watchdog; you deserve every dollar of support and every increase in readership.

  2. Finally (maybe), and in spite of what silly Brad-the-city-attorney says (that check in meeting are perfectly legal). He also said the city could perfectly legally proceed with taking down the Vance Monument. That’s not gone swimmingly either but it’s cost the taxpayers a lot of money. It’s beyond the pale to have actual reporting in Asheville. It’s been awhile.

  3. Thanks much to Sally Kestin and The Watchdog. Shows how much investigative reporting is needed, and how it can and does bring about positive change. The “check ins ” may not have violated the letter of the law, but they certainly violated the spirit of the law. In a touch of irony, it appears that the decision to do away with check ins, and have legitimate work sessions, apparently was made at check ins.

  4. Thank you AVL watchdog. One of Kim Roney’s reasons for running for mayor was due to her frustration over closed door meetings. She was the only elected official not sued by the Asheville Citizen Times and Mountain Express for agreeing to closed sessions. Transparency has been her push all along and I’m so glad you all are covering this.
    Issues such as the houses at 101 Charlotte St that could’ve and should’ve remained, became a huge frustration for concerned citizens working hard for an alternative plan that was much more sustainable. All efforts fell on deaf ears, and the overriding theme was that our mayor and council were deciding their own vision behind closed doors instead of including their constituents in the process.
    Thank you for your work.

  5. I’m a supporter of more open governments provided the intent is to allow for greater transparency while also allowing local governments to actually do the work of the people. Far too often “transparency” is used as cover for stopping any progress — just look at how special interests, for example, abuse review boards to halt construction they simply oppose. I also worry that transparency also gets abused by opponents with an agenda who will take a quote out of context and hammer it it for political purposes, as happens all too often in the hyperactive media environment that even Asheville has to reckon with.

    It sounds like the new working group policy will be both more effecient and more open, I hope we can avoid allowing bad faith actors to abuse this new process.

  6. I’m glad to learn this change is apparently imminent. It does beg a question in my mind:

    Since Manheimer has been Asheville’s Mayor for almost 10 years, and the “check-in meetings” have been ongoing for the last 5 years, then it stands the test of reason the meetings must have been started under Mayor Manheimer’s watch.

    If a mayor is to “lead”, then Manheimer has had 5 years to lead and convince Asheville City Council that “check-in” meetings did not support the goal of transparency in Asheville’s City Council government. Why is it then that Mayor Manheimer, only recently displayed an attempt at righteous indignation, after the Asheville Watchdog’s Sally Kestin published her “Check-in Meeting” story on January 17, 2023?

    Several famous people have said something similar to “lead, follow, or get out of the way”. After assessment, perhaps Mayor Manheimer should determine which of the 3 courses of action she has deployed on this issue in the past 5 years?

  7. As a relatively new resident of Asheville, I had begun to feel that our Mayor and Council are borderline incompetent. At least certainly not very knowledgeable about what they are doing. Thanks to the city atty, they didn’t have to think a lot either. our spotlight on the sunshine was timely and much needed. Thanks and keep at it. My donation is well spent.

    1. Yep, mostly incompetent and Manheimer deserves most of the blame for having no leadership skills whatsoever. She always appears smug and defensive and just watch the smoke pour out of her ears when wise citizens speak during public comment. (So essentially Manheimer is saying it was Gwen Wisler’s fault for the check-ins since now the vote would be 4-3? Could Watchdog follow up with Wisler and see what’s up with that?)

  8. To skirt the spirit of the law is simply deceitful. Shame on the councilmembers and mayor of Asheville. These people are elected and paid by the public they serve, and they are obliged to include public input into policymaking, budgeting, and general administration of all public matters. Period. Thank you for reporting on this; hopefully this exposure will lead to meaningful change.

  9. While the check-ins were obviously bad optics, there is still the larger question of how/why they’re used. From the article – “they provide a valuable opportunity to become informed and ask questions about topics.” All we’ve seen was that these meetings were with advocates that could help the Council shape and lock in their point of view. More open meetings are great, but until they invite stakeholders to participate “when the sausage is being made,” then I’m afraid the concept of openness means a slightly greater opportunity for people to yell into the wind….

  10. Well done to everyone at AVLWatchdog. This change would not have happened without your reporting. This is what REAL journalism is all about. Unfortunately, it seems to be a waning art/profession.

    Keep up the good work.

  11. Thank you Asheville Watchdog! We definitely need more transparency with the under the table meetings that our elected and tax payer paid individuals are conspiring behind the backs of Asheville and Buncombe county citizens. They lost their right to privacy once they accepted their positions and began being paid by taxpayers. That goes for the city attorney too. They all work for us, not the other way around.

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