by Jordan Green

Minutes covering 13 years of meetings by the Guilford County Open Space Committee have been recovered, but the strange final months of the committee’s existence before it was unceremoniously disbanded are not yet part of the official record.

Members of the Guilford County Open Space Committee learned that their group had been disbanded through a Dec. 1, 2014 letter from Bill Bencini on behalf of the county commission. It was a final act of sorts for Bencini as chairman of the county legislative body. The very day the letter was received, Bencini retired from the county commission, and a week later he took the oath as mayor of High Point.

As if their unceremonious dismissal wasn’t bad enough, learning that the official minutes recording open space’s 15-year history were missing only rubbed salt in the wounds of the stunned volunteer committee members. The matter came to light in the spring when two members of the defunct committee, along with a delegation of citizens from High Point interested in stewardship of the Rich Fork Preserve, met with Guilford County Clerk to Board Robin Keller and three county commissioners.

“I think my chin literally hit the table,” Marie Poteat, a former member of the open space committee, recalled upon learning that the minutes were missing. A resident of Jamestown, Poteat served after retiring from a career in the chemical industry.

A bound volume of official minutes for the committee, complete but for the committee’s final seven turbulent months in 2014, has recently surfaced. Triad City Beat has had a public records request on file with the county since June 12. After a series of follow-up attempts with Keller, a round of phone calls to county commissioners quickly resulted in an invitation to review the minutes.

Keller said staff located the bound volume of minutes in a box, adding that it apparently got lost following the departure of two staff members as the county underwent an organizational overhaul that ultimately resulted in the creation of the new facilities, parks & properties department.

Anne Hice, a retired teacher from Pleasant Garden who was elected chair of the open space committee in early 2014, said the recovery of the official minutes helps reinforce the group’s legitimacy.

Given that the committee was responsible for selecting properties for the county to acquire through a $10 million bond approved by voters, the minutes provide an important historical record, Poteat said.

“What we were doing is spending the public money,” she said. “In those records it documents how we operated…. All of that will tell you what properties we were looking at. We were spending $10 million. I thought it was one of the most important committees I served on. For the record of the amount of money we were charged to spend for the citizens of Guilford County, I think those minutes were very important.”

The bound volume of official minutes provides a nearly comprehensive record of the committee’s meetings from Feb. 27, 2001, when the bylaws were adopted, through Oct. 22, 2013.

Along with the bound volume of minutes, staff also recovered several sets of minutes from former Open Space Coordinator Alex Ashton’s hard drive, although most are duplicates. Of the 25 sets of minutes that were stored on Ashton’s hard drive, only four are distinct from those collected in the bound volume. Two of those meetings — in February and March 2014 — immediately precede Ashton’s departure.

Keller said the county commission has authorized her to purchase new information-management software that will help avoid similar challenges in the future. She said her staff will conduct annual trainings for the 56 boards and commissions with roughly 2,000 citizen volunteers so they can upload their minutes directly to the web.

“So hopefully we’ll have more transparency,” Keller said. “When someone leaves or moves away, their work will not be lost. So right now we’re trying to reach back and pull it back in.”

The bruised feelings and confusion leading up to the committee’s dismissal help explain why retention of the minutes has become such a vexed matter. And the gap in the official record after Ashton’s departure is a matter of continuing concern. Poteat said minutes from the last six months of open space’s existence will provide a record of how committee members attempted to make decisions and figure out how to operate even as they perceived that county officials were not happy with them.

“I think the mystery goes on,” she said. “I’m not sure we’ll get everything answered.”

Poteat and Hice recall Keller as a disruptive as the committee navigated a changing political landscape. “She came in and turned our committee upside down,” Poteat said, “and said, ‘This is the way it’s got to be done.’”

For her part, Keller said last week that the open space committee was not a properly constituted committee considering that its members were not appointed by the county commission. In fact, the parks and recreation commission approved members of the open space committee based on internal recommendations. Keller said that all along open space should have been operating as a subcommittee of the parks and recreation commission. Under that structure, at least two members of the parks and recreation commission would serve on the open space committee, one of whom would act as chair. As a subcommittee of parks and rec, Keller said, additional members could be brought on as “subject matter experts.” She added that open space’s minutes should have been submitted to the parks and recreation commission for approval.

“We kind of tried to wedge them into the government bureaucracy,” Keller said, “which I imagine can be a painful process.”

Based on Keller’s advice, Hice said, Gil Vaughan, a member of the parks and recreation commission, was appointed the official chair of the open space committee. To satisfy Keller’s requirements, Vaughan called the meeting to order and then turned it over to Hice to run. Eventually, Hice said she became uncomfortable with the arrangement and stopped running the meetings.

Vaughan, a realtor in Greensboro, said in an email that as a member of the parks and recreation commission and the open space committee’s liaison to the commission, “by default” he became the new chairman of the committee.

“Is that confusing enough for you?” he asked. “It was for me; and it certainly was for the open space members.”

Meanwhile, Hice said, Keller suspended the committee’s bylaws, which resulted in the committee losing its staff liaison. Poteat recalled that Thomas Marshburn, the county’s new parks and recreation director, stopped attending the meetings because he said he didn’t want to be there on his personal time.

Vaughan said he was never asked to submit open space minutes to the parks and recreation commission and doubts anyone else did, either. But Vaughan has retained unofficial and unsigned minutes for the last four meetings, with one exception: No minutes were taken at the September meeting because not enough people showed up to make a quorum.

“We just sat around trying to figure out what was going on behind the scenes with the new Guilford County staff and administration, and what our roles really were going to be in the future,” Vaughan recalled.

That became evident two months later, when all the members received letters at their home addresses notifying them that they had been terminated.

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