Legal battle brews over audio tapes

Published 11:37 am Wednesday, March 23, 2011

WINDSOR – While the closed session written minutes of the Aug. 17, 2009 meeting of the Bertie County Board of Commissioners have now been made public, the battle continues over the release of the electronic sound recording generated during that session.

Robert E. Hornik Jr., an attorney with the Brough Law Firm of Chapel Hill who is representing the Friends of Bertie – Rescind the Raise Committee, has responded to a letter sent March 16 from Lloyd Smith, legal counsel to the Bertie Commissioners.

In his letter, 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 in his letter to Hornik. “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 closed session from 18 months ago concerned the Bertie Commissioners renewing the employment contract of Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb. He was awarded a new contract, one that increased his annually salary from $101,725 to $144,000 as well as an additional $3,000 in annual travel expenses (taking that allotment to $9,000 per year).

The Friends of Bertie – Rescind the Raise Committee have strenuously voiced their objection over the increases since learning of such earlier this year. That group has alleged a lack of transparency within Bertie County local government.

Meanwhile, they continue to use legal avenues to gain access to the audio tapes of the August, 2009 closed session.

In a March 18 letter to Smith, Hornik cited David Lawrence, a well-known authority in North Carolina on public records law for local governments. Hornik cited a section of Lawrence’s 2009 book, which reads as follows:

“Many public bodies do not tape their closed sessions. Even when they do, they are more likely to use the tapes to help a written general account and minutes rather than accept the statute’s invitation to use the tape recording as the general account and minutes. As long as the closed session record is sealed, it seems apparent that the tape is also sealed. Once the closed session record has been made available to the public, however, the tape, if it still exists, is probably open to public access as well.”

With that said, Hornik closed his letter to Smith by writing, “You have provided the minutes of the August 19, 2009 closed session. We are entitled to the tapes of that closed session too. Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to receiving a copy of the closed session tapes.”

In the meantime, the Friends of Bertie – Rescind the Raise Committee called Smith’s letter to their attorney as “steamy” and “harsh.”

“This letter announces their intentions to use the citizens’ hard earned tax dollars to litigate and defend their secretive and non-transparent actions,” said the group in a press release sent Tuesday morning. “They could simply fix this by rescinding the raise or turning over the closed session tapes, but they choose to show their power by continuing to go against the will of the people. Petitions will show in the coming weeks just how strong that will is and how wrong they are. The light of truth is not out in Bertie County. It is just beginning.”

The citizens’ group also took issue with what the closed session minutes revealed.

“In these minutes there was no discussion of the 42% ($42,275) base salary increase beyond the county Manager providing salary data for Dare and Beaufort counties, no discussion of the 50% ($3,000) increase on in county travel, and no discussion of the 126% ($6,434) increase in annual retirement payments,” the group observed. “There was no documentation of future performance expectations for receiving this increase and only a note that this should be done at some point in the future. If all the above discussions did not take place in this meeting, then when and where did they take place or did they ever take place at all?

“In the entire report, only just over two pages in length, there is not one word on the dollar or percentage amount of this huge raise. There is nothing about who proposed that amount or how the amount was negotiated. How could you consider a raise without discussing that?”

The group also alleged that the commissioners did not handle the contract negotiations with Lamb very well.

“It appears the County Manager told them what increase he wanted and they simply complied. If Mr. Lamb is that good and the commissioners that needy, then one of two things is true. We either do not need the commissioners or we do not need the county manager. Better yet, maybe we do not need any of them,” the group said.

The group’s entire reaction to the closed session minutes is printed within a paid ad found on page 10A in today’s edition.

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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