For an active cohort of citizens who have championed the preservation of undeveloped land across the county for open space, wildlife habitat, watershed protection and agricultural use, the introduction of active recreational uses like mountain biking and horseback riding represents a betrayal.
What became known as the Guilford County Open Space Program dates back to 1997, when a group of citizens began meeting to discuss how to address the rapid disappearance of natural areas in the county.
The Guilford County Commission officially instituted the open space committee as a subcommittee of the parks and recreation commission in 2000, and county voters approved a $10 million bond referendum to purchase properties for preservation in 2004. In the late 2000s, members of the open space committee identified and walked prospective properties. They found property owners who were willing to donate land to the program or sell below market value. Since 2004, the county has purchased 14open-space preserves and spent virtually all of the $10 million bond.
“I believe [the county commissioners] are proceeding in a way that contradicts the program’s established mission,” Janice Siebert, co-president of the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, told county officials during the June 25 meeting. “I believe the taxpayers are being misled and that landowners are being betrayed. Voters approved a $20 million bond referendum in 2004 to provide $10 million to be spent for parks and $10 million for open space preserves. There’s a difference between a park, passive or not, and a preserve. The purpose of open space preservation as stated at the time of the referendum is keeping natural land in perpetuity… to protect water quality, provide flood control, allow groundwater to recharge, provide noise and additional buffers, preserve wildlife and plant habitats.”
Mark Gatehouse, a mountain biker who has supported the open space program since its inception in 1997, said that definition doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s true that the purpose of the open space program is to protect natural land in perpetuity, he said, but it’s also true that the program was pitched to voters as providing “trails for non-motorized vehicles.”
“The recent claim that mountain biking is not compatible with the preserve and that taxpayers are bending the rules is false,” Gatehouse said at the meeting. “The taxpayers who are being betrayed are the cyclists. The mountain-biking community, again, was a major supporter of the bond issue. We’re not a narrow special interest.”
Identifying himself as someone who works for a Fortune 250 company in Guilford County and hires for “the type of high-paying jobs which Guilford County aspires to capture,” Gatehouse publicly urged county commissioners to lift a prohibition on mountain biking in the county’s open space preserves. Judging by a map, shown at the June 25 meeting at the library that indicates that the south-central area of the Rich Fork Preserve will be set aside for mountain biking, the cyclists appear to have found a receptive audience with elected officials and county staff.
While county officials and staff have signaled a willingness to allow active recreational uses like mountain biking on properties purchased through the open space program, the very term “open space” has been systematically scrubbed out of official recognition, to the extent that county officials don’t even acknowledge the existence of minutes that the open space committee scrupulously maintained for 15 years.
The first hint that the county’s commitment to open space was wavering came with the April 2014 resignation of Alex Ashton, the county’s open space coordinator. Ashton, who now works as a leasing manager for UNC-Chapel Hill’s property office, declined to comment about his departure.
Jack Jezorek, who chaired the open space committee during the 2004 bond referendum and continued to serve on the committee through its sudden demise at the end of 2014, praises Ashton for his competency and dedication, as do many volunteer members of the now defunct committee.
“He could see that he wasn’t going to be promoted or get an advanced position commensurate with his experience or education,” Jezorek said. “Towards the end of his tenure he was only working three days. He decided to leave and find something better.”
County government has undergone extensive change, not the least of which involved Republicans taking control of the commission in 2012, following a redistricting plan imposed by the NC General Assembly. A new crop of elected representatives came into office that year, and they took a critical look at the open space program. The county’s administrative leadership was also in transition; the new commissioners had scarcely been seated for two months when County Manager Brenda Jones Fox retired in February 2013.
“We’ve had some things brought before the board — the parks and recreation board along with the board of commissioners — as to how to move these open space properties forward,” Commissioner Alan Branson, a Republican elected in 2012, told his fellow commissioners during a January 2014 meeting. “I feel like we have failed somewhat in the design application as to where we’re gonna go and what we’re gonna do with these parcels and properties over the next eight to 10 years, or two years, whatever the case may be.”
The county commission quietly undercut the open space committee’s influence through a unanimous vote to amend the bylaws of county’s parks and recreation commission in January 2014.
“We’ve made some changes in the bylaws to incorporate open space and more clearly delineate the role of the open space subcommittee under the parks and recs commission,” Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Rob McNiece told commissioners at the time.
No commissioners took the opportunity to question McNiece about the amendment or made any comments on the item. Video of the meeting reveals chatter from the dais carrying over from a previous item in which the commission had approved federal housing funds.
“We love you,” Democratic Commissioner Carolyn Coleman can be heard telling the Republican members. “I want you to love Obama, too.”
One unidentified commissioner can be heard complaining of being distracted.
The amended bylaws essentially folded the functions of the open space committee into the parks and recreation commission, including making recommendations for master plans for open space properties.
The decision also appeared to pass without notice by members of the open space committee.
Video companion by Caleb Smallwood
“There were no hints that we were going to be disbanded,” Jezorek said. “The only way we got notified was a letter in December from Bill Bencini, saying, ‘Thanks, but we don’t need you anymore.’”
At the time, Bill Bencini was chairing the county commission in his final term. He had not sought reelection to the county commission, and instead ran for mayor of High Point. His final meeting as a county commissioner took place on Dec. 1, 2014 and seven days later he took the oath of office as mayor.
“Sort of his last official act was to axe the open space committee,” Jezorek said. “No one ever talked to the committee from the county staff about their ideas for a change of direction for the program or a change of vision. There were some hints about where things might go. We were just sent on our way and summarily given a dismissal letter. It would have been nice if they had sat down in person and said, ‘Thank you for your service; we just have ideas about where we want to take this program.’”
It’s unclear whether the dismissal letter from Bencini arose from a formal vote, or the chairman privately polled the members to determine he had the support of the majority. Commissioner Kay Cashion, a Democrat, said that to the best of her recollection the commissioners took a formal vote, but a review of minutes from the 12 months by Triad City Beat preceding Bencini’s retirement turned up no official action on the matter.
“That vote was made on the spur of the moment,” Cashion said. “I questioned it at that time, but it was pretty much a done deal.”
Cashion said open space wasn’t one of her areas of focus on the commission, so she can’t speak directly to why the committee was disbanded.
Commissioner Alan Branson said the county commission decided as a whole to disband the open space committee because all the bond money had been spent, and as the commissioners see it, the committee had fulfilled its purpose by helping the county identify and obtain properties.
In early 2015, members of the defunct open space committee received a shock when they met with three county commissioners and members of county staff. Members of a High Point committee convened to provide local input on the Rich Fork Preserve, including chairperson Dot Kearns, sought the meeting with county officials because they felt their wishes were falling on deaf ears. Marie Poteat and Alice Patterson, two former members of the defunct open space committee, accompanied them.
Representing the county were county commissioners Cashion and Branson, along with Hank Henning, the board’s chair. McNiece, the director of facilities, parks and property management, and Robin Keller, the clerk to the board, also attended the meeting.
“I think my chin literally hit the table,” Poteat said, when Keller remarked that the county didn’t have the open space committee’s minutes.
“Those minutes were like every other group,” Poteat said. “They would be kept virtually in perpetuity. I’m wondering: Are the parks and rec committee minutes and other group’s minutes missing, or was it only open space? I find it perplexing. I don’t believe in conspiracies. We were disbanded. The county website has been wiped clean of ‘open space.’ [Keller] even said in the meeting that it’s like open space never existed.”
Keller said in a recent interview that the county was still trying to locate the minutes in response to a number of public records requests, including one from Triad City Beat on June 12.
There’s no doubt that the Guilford County Open Space Committee maintained complete minutes from the time of its appointment in 2000 through its dissolution in 2014 and that Ashton, as the county staff member assigned to the committee, was responsible for maintaining custody of the records. What happened to the minutes after Ashton left his job with the county in April 2014 remains a mystery.
Jezorek said the county staff member assigned to open space — there were three over the course of the committee’s history, with Ashton capping off the sequence — took the minutes.
“We were quite rigorous in maintaining the minutes,” Jezorek said. “Staff people were always very careful to make sure we had signed minutes and that they were filed electronically and in hard copy.
“Notes were always taken, and drafts were sent out to the committee,” Jezorek added. “Every month I signed the official copy, and they were signed by the secretary. And they were filed electronically with the county. I never did that; that’s what staff told me. And a paper copy was put in a binder in the staff person’s office.”
Alice Patterson, the committee’s final chair, echoed Jezorek’s comments, adding that many committee members have held on to unofficial and uncorrected draft minutes, but the finalized minutes bearing the chair’s signature always went to the county.
Ashton said he and Roger Bardsley, a former parks planner for the county, established a shared computer hard drive where they filed an electronic copy of the minutes. Ashton said he and Bardsley made the drive available to the rest of staff and the department director before leaving. The only signed copies of the minutes are in the official minutes book, which he left on a shelf in his office, he said.
Ashton’s tenure overlapped by about a month with Rob McNiece, director of the reconfigured facilities, parks and property management department. Ashton said he informed McNiece immediately of his plans to resign, but he doesn’t remember if he actually handed the physical copy of the minutes over to him. Matt Wallace, who succeeded Ashton as open space coordinator — the position is now called “passive parks program manager” — should know where to locate the minutes, Ashton said, because Wallace interned under him and helped maintain the minutes.
“Those things have got to still be in there,” Ashton said. “I don’t think anyone would have trashed them.”
Keller said that as clerk to the board she’s only responsible for maintaining the minutes of county commissioners, adding that “it’s not uncommon for subcommittees to not submit their minutes to the clerk.”
Keller said that under the NC Department of Cultural Resources records retention and disposition schedule, the minutes are “not considered a permanent record. Usually, when the purpose of the group has expired, they can be disposed…. I was not here when they created that group. My understanding was that it was for the acquisition of open space.”
The Records Retention and Disposition Schedule issued by the NC Department of Cultural Resources for county management does say that minutes of subcommittees may be destroyed when their administrative value ends, but only on one condition — that the minutes of the subcommittee are officially entered as part of the minutes of the parent board. If that doesn’t happen, the guidance manual says, “the State Archives reserves the right to designate the minutes as permanent.”
A review of the minutes of the Guilford County Commission over the past two years reveals no official action to incorporate the minutes of the open space committee into the board’s official record.
State law makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor for any public official to unlawfully remove, alter, deface, mutilate or destroy a public record, punishable by a fine from $10 to $500 upon conviction.
“The minutes were public information and public property,” said Marie Poteat, one of the former members of the open space committee. “It would be a violation if they were destroyed. We know that those minutes are there and we’re still hearing that they can’t be found, which to me is pretty incredible. It kind of violates the whole spirit of freedom of information saying that you’re purging the system.”