Group challenges pay hike

Published 10:54 am Friday, March 11, 2011

WINDSOR – A group of Bertie County citizens questioning a hefty raise awarded 18 months ago to County Manager Zee Lamb are using the legal guidance of a Chapel Hill-based law firm to challenge that pay hike.

On March 8, a letter was sent by Robert E. Hornik Jr., representing The Brough Law Firm, to Lloyd Smith, legal counsel for the Bertie County Board of Commissioners.

According to that letter, a copy of which was provided to this newspaper by the Friends of Bertie-Rescind the Raise Committee, Hornik addressed an alleged lack of transparency on behalf of the commissioners in approving Lamb’s most recent contract with the county, one that increased the county manager’s salary by $42,275 plus granted an additional $3,000 in annual travel expenses. Lamb, whose total contract package is now worth $153,000, had an annual base salary of $101,725 and $6,000 in travel expenses prior to the pay hike.

Hornik said in the letter that he was discussing the situation with his clients…“review the options available to them, including seeking relief pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. (General Statutes) 143.318.16 and 143.318.16A, such as having the employment contract declared null and void.”

“The August 2009 (Bertie Commissioners’ meeting) minutes reflect a motion to go into a closed session to discuss a laundry list of issues [referencing Gen. Stat. 143.318.11 (a) (3) through (6)], though with no detail or particulars,” Hornik wrote in the letter to Smith. “Those minutes also reflect that when the Commissioners returned to open session, [they] passed a motion to ‘instruct the County Attorney to draw up a final contract for the County Manager for the [Board] chairman to sign’, but with no further detail or information concerning the contract or concerning compensation.”

The particulars of Lamb’s most recent contract with Bertie County, including the pay raise, did not come to the public’s attention until the January, 2011 release of the School of Government’s listing of salaries for public officials. Since that time, several Bertie County citizens, speaking at meetings of the county commissioners, have voiced their concerns and opposition to such a large increase in Lamb’s salary, especially considering the current condition of the economy.

“My initial research on the issue, including reference to David Lawrence’s Open Meetings and local Governments in North Carolina (7th ed. 2008) indicates that the Board of County Commissioners’ action approving the contract and setting the County Manager’s salary should have been done much more transparently and in open session,” Hornik said in the letter. “This is consistent with the statutory provision that all County employees’ salary, including pay, benefits, incentives, bonuses and all other forms of compensation, are a matter of public record.”

Hornik’s letter also reminded Smith that if his clients were successful in their legal endeavor, they may also seek to have their attorney fees and other costs covered (by the county).

“We have retained one of the best law firms in NC to overturn or rescind the raise of the Bertie County Manager and hold accountable our Bertie County Commissioners,” said the Friends of Bertie-Rescind the Raise Committee in a press release issued Wednesday. “The raise is not supported by the majority of Bertie County citizens.

“The citizens of Bertie are going to send this one through to the end,” the press release continued. “We will raise the money to litigate this and when we win the county will have to pay our legal fees. The commissioners must know we will prevail. Will they really spend even more of our hard earned tax dollars litigating a suit to cover up their bad judgment and lack of transparency? We can hope not, but based on their actions to date, do not hold your breath.”

As points of reference, the “Friends” group noted the following:

“In the middle of the last recession, they gave a 46 percent, $52,000 compensation increase to a guy already making 21 percent more than any county manager in the region;

“They did it in closed session and it appears without following the laws required to make it public;

“They told all other county employees no one was getting a raise;

“Three Commissioners got re-elected without telling the public their actions;

“They have not been forthcoming since it was discovered; and

“All have defended their actions when not one citizen has spoken publicly in favor of the action.”

The Commissioners were within their right to discuss an employment contract with a county worker behind closed doors. According to the permitted purposes of conducting a closed session (North Carolina General Statute 143 318.11 (a) (5) (ii)…“to establish the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract.”

Apparently, the “Friends” group is not questioning that legal point, rather concerned that the Bertie Commissioners allegedly did not engage the public on the terms of Lamb’s contract.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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