Firm had Zebulon staff kick reporter out of focus group meeting

amoody@newsobserver.comJanuary 24, 2014 

— Consultants steering Zebulon through the formation of a Unified Development Ordinance had town staff eject a member of the media from what was advertised as a public meeting on Tuesday.

In a follow-up interview Wednesday, a representative of the consulting firm said that particular meeting should have never been advertised as open to the public.

It was one of several sessions held Tuesday through Thursday at town hall by The Lawrence Group and the town to introduce the UDO process and seek input from various sectors of the community. Some of the sessions were designed to be open to the public but some were not, according to Craig Lewis, the firm’s director of planning.

“We had some miscommunication between us and the town as to how we advertised this,” Lewis said. “That was our fault. We gave them a schedule of groups we would normally invite. We didn’t realize they were going to broadcast that as a public schedule.”

The town is attempting to create its first UDO, a comphrensive document that combines a number of zoning and development ordinances and establishes policies designed to direct growth into the future.

Zebulon Planning Director Mark Hetrick asked an Eastern Wake News reporter to leave a focus group for developers and home builders at the request of Lawrence Group representatives.

Lewis later said he did not want the presence of the media to discourage other members of the public from being straightforward during the session. Only one other member of the public, Tommy Perry, who has tried in the past to develop property that he owns, attended the focus group.

Zebulon Town Manager Rick Hardin overruled Hetrick’s decision to eject the reporter after noting the meetings were billed as open to the public.

Mike Tadych, a Raleigh lawyer who handles open government matters, agreed.

“When you open the doors and invite the public, you don’t need to close the doors to certain members of the public,” Tadych said.

When the reporter re-entered the meeting room, however, Perry and firm representatives exchanged business cards and concluded their session within a couple minutes.

Lewis said even town staff members were asked to not participate in the non-public, focus group sessions for the same reason the reporter was driven out.

“We try to get unfiltered feedback regarding people’s experience with the rules of the development process,” Lewis said Wednesday. “Generally, in small towns where everyone knows everybody, (people) don’t want to say something that’s harsh and have something come back and bite them in the future.

“We’re trying to get people’s actual opinion of what the town’s doing or not doing. That’s why we like to keep the groups small. It is confidential information we wouldn’t normally provide in an open, public session.”

He said Hetrick was not present at the focus group for developers and home builders from the time the reporter was asked to leave until Hetrick returned to inform the group that the reporter was to be readmitted. However, Hetrick was sitting in on the focus group after the reporter had been ordered out.

Lewis also said Hetrick was allowed to sit in on a Wednesday morning focus group for chamber of commerce representatives, merchants and business owners.

“It wasn’t as big a priority in terms of confidentiality,” Lewis said of Hetrick attending the focus group Wednesday. He said talking with business and chamber representatives was different than talking with developers.

Tadych, the First Amendment lawyer, said the process would likely turn out better if the entire effort is opened to public inspection.

“In Zebulon, it’s starting to feel like they are experiencing growing pains of the success of this entire region. Openness toward that process will likely lead to a better result,” Tadych said.

Moody: 919-829-4806; Twitter: @easternwakenews

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