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Bertie ‘Friends’ will have their day in court

WINDSOR – The state’s open meeting and public record laws will be tested here Jan. 23.

In their ongoing efforts to gain access to a tape recording of the Bertie County Board of Commissioners’ closed session meeting conducted in August 2009, the Friends of Bertie will finally receive their chance to be heard in a court of law.

After several delays, the group, represented by attorney Robert E. Hornik Jr. of The Brough Law Firm in Chapel Hill, will present their public records/open government case beginning at 9 a.m. on Monday in Bertie County Superior Court.

For the past year, the Friends group has publically demanded that more light needs to be shed on a 46 percent pay raise given in 2009 to then Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb. He just recently resigned to take a similar job in neighboring Chowan County.

Lamb’s raise was not discovered publically until February of last year.

“This action was never about any personal animosity towards Mr. Lamb,” the Friends group stated in a press release. “It was a revolt against the reckless and irresponsible actions of our County Commissioners who approved the 46 percent increase for Mr. Lamb and their continuing efforts to prevent citizens from understanding why they wasted our tax dollars and abused our trust. It has always been about transparency and openness and their unwillingness to following the public record and open meeting laws of North Carolina. We simply believe that citizens and taxpayers have the right to expect more open and transparent deliberations on the part of their elected representatives.”

“While the outcome of the case is especially important to Bertie County citizens who are interested in open government, the outcome could have broader implications statewide,” said Hornik in a memo sent to media outlets statewide. “The issues to be decided in the lawsuit have potentially broader implications for local and county governments, and resolution of the issues may provide guidance about where the balance between open government and personnel privacy lies.

He continued, “Longstanding state policy favors open government, and recent changes in personnel privacy statutes seem to indicate a legislative trend toward greater transparency in public employment matters. The Bertie County case may offer some insight into where the courts think the line between open government and personnel privacy should be drawn.”

The Friends group claims that the Bertie Commissioners have “spent tens of thousands of your hard earned tax dollars to prevent you from hearing the closed session tape where they say that they ‘vigorously debated’ this increase for Mr. Lamb.”

The agenda for the Aug. 17, 2009 Bertie Commissioners’ meeting indicated that the Commissioners intended to “consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee…” in a closed session that evening. Instead, the minutes reflect that the Board entered a closed session late in their meeting to discuss a personnel item, and that after the closed session the Commissioners returned to public session and unanimously voted to “instruct the County attorney to draw up a final contract for the County manager for the Chairman to sign.”

Minutes of that closed session were not released to the public until March 2011, after the Friends of Bertie first sought more details about the closed session and the County manager’s raise discussed at and granted immediately after the closed session.

North Carolina General Statutes require the board to keep “full and accurate minutes of all official meetings, including any closed sessions…”, and that minutes of closed sessions may be withheld from public inspection only “so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session.” North Carolina public records statutes provide that recordings of meetings of public bodies, such as the County Commissioners, are “public records.”

In the lawsuit, the Friends of Bertie have challenged Bertie County’s refusal to turn over a copy of the audiotape recording of the closed session at which the County Manager’s raise was discussed.  County officials have claimed that the recording is not a public record, and that even if it is the recording contains private personnel records relative to the County Manager and therefore the recording is exempt from the requirements of the public records law.

The plaintiffs’ action seeks a clarification of state law on the issues of when closed session minutes must be disclosed and the degree of detail that must be included in closed session minutes.

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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