Friends of Bertie file lawsuit

Published 12:07 pm Friday, April 8, 2011

WINDSOR – As promised, a group of Bertie County citizens have filed a lawsuit as they continue to seek all information pertaining to a raise granted 19 months ago to County Manager Zee Lamb.

On Thursday, Robert E. Hornik Jr. of The Brough Law Firm in Chapel Hill filed a complaint against the defendant, Bertie County, on behalf of the Friends of Bertie. Those plaintiffs are listed as John H. Davis, Ronald D. Wesson, Frances E.N. Rascoe and Timothy L. Phelps according to the legal document, a copy of which was provided by the group to this newspaper. Each plaintiff is listed as a resident, property owner and taxpayer in Bertie County.

The lawsuit was filed in reference to the closed session portion of the Aug. 17, 2009 meeting of the Bertie County Board of Commissioners. It was there that the commissioners, according to the closed session written minutes which were publically released last month, engaged in a discussion over Lamb’s employment contract. Upon returning to open session, the board unanimously agreed to have the county attorney draw up a final contract for the county manager and have the board chairman to sign the document.

While the “Friends” group was granted their request for the written minutes of that closed session, they are seeking the electronic sound recording generated during that particular portion of the meeting.

Windsor-based attorney Lloyd Smith, who serves as legal counsel for the Bertie Commissioners, said the audio tapes of the meeting will not be released as they are not public records, thus prompting the lawsuit.

“The search for transparency in Bertie County continues,” said the Friends of Bertie – Rescind the Raise Committee in a press release made available to various media outlets earlier this week. “Why should citizens have to spend this kind of money to understand the rationale behind a government employee raise? Forty-six percent and almost $52,000 per year increase when all other county employees were being told, no raises. Two commissioners got elected without this being known. We still want to know what performance lead to this type of increase? We cannot find a positive statistic where we lead our region. Why should our executive salary lead the region? Hopefully this tape will answer some questions the commissioners have not answered to date.”

Lamb’s new contract increased his annual 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 particulars of that contract 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.

Two claims are filed within the lawsuit. One deals with North Carolina General Statute 132-1 (a) – “Public record” or “public records” shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data‑processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions.

Claim number one also points out that Lamb gave his permission to release the printed written minutes of the Aug. 17, 2009 closed session and that a 14-page statement publically released by the commissioners at their Feb. 28, 2011 meeting – one that explained the reasoning behind the board’s decision to substantially increase Lamb’s compensation package – included information that would generally be confidential or protected pursuant to NC General Statute 153A-98.

“Under all circumstances, there is no longer any basis in law or in fact for (the) Defendant to withhold the audiotape of the August 17, 2009 closed session. Plaintiffs are entitled to judgment declaring that they are entitled to receive a copy of the audiotape….,” the complaint read.

Claim number two states that the defendant’s attorney (Smith) said the tape recording of the August 17, 2009 closed session is not available to the public because the commissioners were discussing personnel performance during that portion of their meeting and that public personnel records, with limited exceptions, are protected, private and exempt from disclosure pursuant to State Statute 153A-98.

However, as the complaint points out, Lamb, among others, signed an authorization on March 16, 2011 authorizing the release of the printed minutes of that session and that the commissioners, in their February 28 statement had made public Lamb’s performance record. Based on those facts, the complaint said the “defendant has already breached whatever privilege or confidentially may have existed with respect to County Manager Lamb’s performance record, and, therefore, plaintiffs should be declared to be entitled to a copy of the audiotape recording of the August 17, 2009 closed session.”

In their request for an order and judgment before the court, the plaintiffs are requiring the defendant, “to submit the closed session audio recording to the court for an “in camera” review so that the court may determine whether the recording, or any portion(s) thereof, should be released as public records.”

Additionally, the plaintiffs, in their complaint, are seeking the defendant to cover reasonable attorney’s fees and other costs should the judge rule in their favor.

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.

email author More by Cal