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OUR VIEW: NCI's 'public' meeting taught us a lesson

OUR VIEW: NCI's 'public' meeting taught us a lesson

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The four men who represent Martinsville and Henry County in state government are upset about a lot of things they say are rotten in Richmond for them since the Democrats took control. Yes, state Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Rocky Mount) and Delegates Danny Marshall (R-Danville), Charles Poindexter (R-Franklin) and Les Adams (R-Chatham) have lost clout and committee assignments and board postings, and they understandably aren’t happy about this politics-as-usual.

Among those changes was the removal of both Marshall and Poindexter from the board of the New College Institute, a role in which Marshall had served since NCI was born in Martinsville, and replacing them with out-of-the-area Democrats. Stanley and Adams continue on the board, but this change is not a great investment in the area’s interests.

But the bigger issue here is the how and not the who: NCI’s process for holding the meeting in which these men were replaced formally makes us wonder if anyone is invested in this area’s interests.

In case you didn’t read Holly Kozelsky’s report in the Bulletin last Sunday, NCI’s board met virtually via Zoom on June 11 and did all sorts of business, including adding those new legislators, discussing details about their purchase of the building on Baldwin Street and ostensibly adopting a new budget to be enacted on July 1.

All of this happened behind what appears to be a very carefully erected curtain of obfuscation that appears both supercilious and suspicious.

Board Relations Coordinator Chris Niblett told Kozelsky that NCI got some “guidelines from our attorney’s office” that were “kind of lax because of the pandemic.”

“This was a kind of a last-minute board meeting, to be truthful about it,” Niblett said.

To be truthful state law requires a 3-day public notification of a scheduled meeting. The key word is “public.” To meet that standard NCI posted the meeting on its website in an obscure manner and not even on its calendar of events. Neither was the meeting listed on a “Commonwealth Calendar” of similar meetings that NCI official Christina Reed said was the “proper avenue.”

Also it should be noted that a day after the meeting, when questions were being asked about notification, the announcement was elevated to larger type and placed in a more obvious position at the bottom of NCI’s home page.

All of this was exacerbated by NCI’s decision to deviate from its traditional practice of notifying media members so they could alert the public and cover the meeting.

In other words, you really weren’t invited to attend a meeting that is required to be open to you. This was a vapor of a notification lost in a cloud of something else. NCI Interim Director Karen Jackson: “The reason it wasn’t sent out is we aren’t required to send it out. I don’t remember if it’s a change in practice.”

We will give her a pass on this, because she has been in her post little more than a year, but we don’t accept her logic and can’t name a public agency that operates that way, either.

Frankly we find all of this a significant affront to open meetings laws and to you, the taxpayers who pay the bills and count on the education NCI would provide to your students. These were tax dollars allocated in the dark. The defense of that is neither plausible nor palatable. Mr. Marshall allowed that “we certainly want the press to participate. NCI is a state organization run with state money, so I always felt like it was the right thing to do.

“We followed what’s required of the state in order to declare it a public meeting: Post it more than three days in advance. Because these are virtual right now, they are slightly different.”

But Mr. Marshall knew about the meeting, even if he and Mr. Poindexter were no more invited than were you. And they remain our bullhorns in Richmond, the people we expect to protect the rights of those constituents who elected them, whether they are welcome on the board or not.

To be honest, we don’t think so many legislators should be on this board – one would suffice – and that none should be its chair. We want NCI run by academicians not politicians who too often allow their theater to separate them from doing the right thing.

But on strictly academic rubric there was very little right about how this meeting was communicated. NCI is a center of learning, and we certainly were educated about how to wink at the public’s rights.

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