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County Provides Details That Gazette Story Does Not

GASTONIA, N.C. – Gaston County Government stands in solidarity with a free press. We recognize the importance they play in our society in holding elected leaders responsible and providing critical information to our community.

In that vein, the county hired a longtime print and TV journalist to fill its public information officer position in February of this year.

What happened today, is an unfortunate case of how the power of the press can be used not for good, but to confuse and misinform the public – the exact opposite of its stated goal.

The Gazette’s story, “Gaston commissioners settle nearly $400K in claims behind closed doors,” authored by Adam Orr but pushed heavily by editor Kevin Ellis, contains numerous inaccuracies and libelously attacks the work of government civil servants and elected leaders alike.

All workman’s compensation claims have been voted on in open session. Each of the four cases cited by the Gazette were approved by the Gaston County Board of Commissioners on the consent agenda at their Oct. 27 meeting. What happens in a closed session is merely direction to the county attorney to proceed with negotiations up to a certain dollar amount. No final settlement is ever voted on in closed session.

The County budgets for workman’s compensation claims every year based on what our insurance provider tells us to do. That’s a standard practice for practically any city or county government.

An entire list of nearly a dozen questions were provided to the county late Tuesday afternoon, right before the Veterans’ Day holiday. County officials – including the clerk of the board, the county attorney, the county manager and the public information officer met Thursday morning to make sure The Gazette had the most thorough information to each of their questions. Mr. Ellis was informed by the county attorney that we were in the process of getting those answers, as well as processing the request for any available executive session minutes dating back to 2010.

But Ellis and Orr chose not to allow the county time to respond to the questions they had asked, and rushed to publish a story that infers malfeasance where, had they simply been diligent in doing their jobs, they would have found none.

The article makes patently untrue statements, such as the county declining to provide 2019 executive meeting minutes. Mr. Ellis was informed that the clerk of the board and her staff were pulling the necessary minutes and reviewing which ones could possibly be unsealed. The county attorney’s office reviews them and signs off on which ones can be disseminated and then they are made available.

That process is already well underway, and will continue, as the county will always make public records available when asked.

The Gazette says it provided state statutes to the county. It provided the same statute the county first provided to them which explains why many executive session minutes need to remain sealed: “minutes or an account of a closed session conducted in compliance with G.S. 143-318.11 may be withheld from public inspection so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session.” The sessions dealing with personnel are kept closed for the protection of the rights of the employee being discussed, and the county takes those rights seriously.

The county, despite The Gazette’s claims, does maintain a repository of minutes online, which includes any executive session minutes that have already been unsealed. Mr. Ellis has previously requested executive session minutes in years past, and the county clerk’s office has obliged by following the same process of review and unsealing the minutes where it is possible to do so.

Providing accurate information to the community is something the County government, under the leadership of its board and its county manager, Dr. Eagle, takes with utmost seriousness. Today’s article shows a growing pattern of recklessness on the part of The Gazette that calls into serious question whether it can be trusted to properly inform the residents of this county.

“This is just another instance of where the fake news media seeks to make news rather than to report the facts,” Gaston County Chairman Tracy Philbeck said.

Given the blatant hostility and lack of professionalism on the part of Mr. Ellis, we doubt our request will be approved, but the County sent a legal demand for a retraction and apology from The Gazette. It is particularly appalling, given that in her first year as county manager, before presenting her first full budget to the Board of Commissioners, Dr. Eagle offered a sit down interview with Mr. Orr. That allowed him to ask any and all questions about the county budget and the process, so as to better inform the citizens of how taxpayer dollars would be spent – or in many cases, saved.

Additionally, the county spent time with Mr. Orr talking about how the county saved more than $4 million earlier this year by refinancing bonds that will ultimately save the taxpayers money. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a story The Gazette seemed interested in telling.

We will continue our focus on serving Gaston County residents in a transparent fashion with the same offer that is made to any media source or member of the public: We will always work with you to get you the information you seek and when we cannot provide it, an explanation as to why.