‘Friends’ request day in court

Published 10:59 am Monday, September 26, 2011

WINDSOR – The legal tussle continues between a group of Bertie County citizens and the county’s Board of Commissioners.

In an ongoing effort to have Bertie local government officials turn over an audio tape of the closed session portion of the Aug. 17, 2009 meeting of the county commissioners, the “Friends of Bertie” are seeking their day in court over the matter.

According to a press release sent by the “Friends” to this newspaper, the group has requested that the legal matter be heard Oct. 10 during a session of Bertie County Superior Court. This comes on the heels of a mediation effort held Sept. 13 between representatives of Bertie County local government and the “Friends of Bertie.” No agreement was reached from the mediation, a process conducted by Marshall Gallop, the arbitrator.

“We have confidence in our legal system and most citizens understand the secretive and non transparent way this occurred. Most believe the only way public trust can be reestablished is for the audio tape to be made public,” the group stated in the press release.

The issue centers on a $52,000 annual compensation increase given just over two years ago to Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb on a vote of the county board of commissioners. That vote came following a closed session of the board.

“This is likely the largest single year raise in NC history for a county manager,” the press release said. “Though the county does not lead our region in any positive statistic for growth, income, or quality of life, our manager is one of the highest paid in the state.

“The raise was not shared with the public when it occurred and for two consecutive years of annual reporting; the raise did not show up in the salary reports submitted by the county to the NC School of Government,” the press release continued. “Discovered by the citizens in early February 2011, no information on the raise was received from the county offices (though requested) until after a lawyer was hired (by the “Friends” group).”

The press release stated that despite the passage of eight months since the group first attempted to gain access to the recording, “the county still refuses to release the audio tape of the closed commissioner meeting where the raise was discussed. They claim proper due diligence and justification was completed but their own written minutes of the meeting do not support this claim. The Friends of Bertie – Rescind the Raise Committee was formed to work to get the commissioners to share the audio tape of that meeting with the public.

“The county has delayed our efforts to have a judge try this case and on 9/13, after months of trying to get the county to agree to a mediation date, we finally completed mediation with them so we could get to trial. It has taken a lot of money and patience to get a chance for the citizens to know the full truth,” the release stated.

“It is rare that on a local governmental level, citizens will financially support something of this magnitude. The citizens of Bertie County have sent in many small donations to make this happen,” the press released added. “They are saying with their pocketbook that they want our public servants to govern in the open and be truthful and forthcoming with the people. This type of legal perseverance does not happen every day and it deserves press coverage that shows the will of the people when things are not right. Carrying any government body to court is rare, hard, expensive, and a cornerstone of why our democracy is the best on earth.”

The press release closed with this remark, “We feel the press has ignored the significance of the citizens’ legal perseverance and this should be corrected by the media. Our day in court is coming. The public has had no coverage by the media on this story since April 2011, yet it is still the conversation of many cups of coffee being enjoyed in the county.”

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