‘County commissioners have done nothing wrong’

Published 8:50 am Tuesday, March 22, 2011

WINDSOR – Bertie County government has been forthright in its dealings with the public and transparent in their actions.

That is the message sent by Bertie County Attorney Lloyd Smith in a letter to Robert E. Hornik Jr., an attorney from The Brough Law Firm in Chapel Hill. Hornik represents the Friends of Bertie – Rescind the Raise Committee, a group objecting to a $42,000 annual raise given to Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb 18 months ago.

“Regarding your letter of March 8, 2011, you are absolutely incorrect concerning the transparency with which the Bertie County Commissioners have conducted business,” Smith said. “I am unsure with your familiarity with all the statutes governing personnel records and closed sessions, but I can assure you that the Bertie County Commissioners have never attempted to hide anything from anyone. We do comply with the law.”

Hornick and the Friends of Bertie-Rescind the Raise Committee have accused the Bertie County Commissioners of not following state guidelines during the August, 2009 meeting in which the board voted to approve a new contract for Lamb which contained, in part, a merit raise of $42,275.

The Chapel Hill-based attorney argued that the minutes for the portion of the meeting after the closed session, which was not attended by any citizen or either newspaper covering the board, was too vague.

“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,” Hornick wrote.

Smith responded to the accusation in his letter dated March 16.

“As to your incorrect assumption that much more should have been done transparently and in open session, I would point out to you that NCGS 153A-98(b) sets for the twelve types of employee information which are a matter of public record,” Smith said. “Everything else concerning an employee is private and cannot be released without the employee’s written consent pursuant to NCGS 152A-98(c)(6).

“Your contention that the minutes had to contain this exact information is ludicrous as the contract itself was a public record and was available for anyone’s inspection at any time,” Smith continued. “Never has the county not responded to a public records request.”

The letter from Hornick also suggested the Friends of Bertie – Rescind the Raise Committee would possibly seek relief through court action.

“As to the last paragraph  of your letter of March 8, 2011 in which you advised us that you may be seeking relief pursuant to NCGS143-318.16 and 143.318.16A, I would advise you that any such action will be met with resistance by the County Commissioners as the County Commissioners have done nothing wrong,” Smith said.

He also said any such action should have been filed long ago.

“I would also call your attention to NCGS143-318.16A(b) which states that a declaratory relief action, such as you propose, must be commenced within 45 days following the initial disclosure of the action that the suit seeks to have declared null and void,” Smith said. “I would also call your attention to the provision that ‘if the challenged action is not recorded in the minutes of the public body the date of its initial disclosure shall be determined by the court based on a finding as to when the Plaintiff knew or should have known that the challenge action had been taken.’ Since the contract is clearly mentioned in the August 17, 2009 public regular minutes which were formally approved on October 5, 2009, then any action for declaratory judgment would have had to be filed within 45 days thereafter.”

Smith did provide the requested minutes of the closed session meeting from August 17, 2009 as requested. They did so after Lamb and Assistant Bertie County Manager Morris Rascoe each signed statements allowing the release of their “protected, private employee records.” (See related story.)

“In keeping with this County’s policy of informing the public of what is transpiring or what has transpired, Mr. Lamb and Mr. Rascoe have signed statements authorizing the release of the written minutes of the closed session of August 17, 2009, as ultimately approved on March 14, 2011 by the Bertie County Commissioners when placed in their final form.”

Smith said the audio tapes of the meeting will not be released as they are not public records.

“The minutes as released by the County Commissioners are public records,” Smith wrote. “Please feel free to file a suit and we will let our Resident Superior Court Judge deal with this issue if your clients wish to waste their money.”

The letter between the two attorneys was released Monday by the Bertie County Commissioners.