‘Friends’ vow to continue legal battle

Published 8:32 am Tuesday, November 15, 2011

WINDSOR – Zee Lamb’s decision to change addresses as a county manager will not stop a local citizens group from seeking transparency in local government.

On Thursday of last week, Lamb accepted an offer from the Chowan County Board of Commissioners to become county manager there. Lamb has served as Bertie County Manager since 2000. He gave the Bertie County Commissioners his 60-day notice on Thursday.

“The announcement that Mr. Zee Lamb has accepted the county manager’s job in Chowan County will have no impact on the efforts of the Friends of Bertie,” said a spokesperson for the group in statement emailed to this newspaper. “Our legal case will continue.”

On April 7, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Friends of Bertie 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 in March, 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.

That new contract increased Lamb’s 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.

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. A mediation session 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.

The lawsuit was scheduled to be heard Oct. 10 during a session of Bertie County Superior Court. It has been postponed until a later date.

“Our efforts have always been about the lack of transparency from our current commissioners,” the group’s spokesperson said in its latest statement. “This lack of transparency was illustrated in the way the raise occurred and our commissioners’ actions since it became known and citizens asked for information. Our efforts for transparency continue and are not impacted by this change.

“We wish Mr. Lamb success in his new assignment and we applaud the Chowan County Commissioners for publicly releasing his starting salary openly and clearly to the press, just the way any salary change for a public official should be handled,” the statement concluded.

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 (Lloyd Smith of Windsor, who serves as legal counsel to the Bertie Commissioners) 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.

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