County Calls Off Meeting on Utilities
The county commissioners decided Tuesday to pull out of a joint closed meeting with the Robbins Town Board after questions were raised about its legality.
The meeting was scheduled for this (Wednesday) morning. Instead, the two boards were considering a legal meeting involving less than a quorum of the members of each board, along with their managers.
The subject of the original meeting was discussion of the possible acquisition of the town’s utilities by the county . However, the two county commissioners who agreed to participate in the substitute meeting indicated they were unsure of the subject matter for the new meeting.
“I have no idea,” said Commissioner Larry Caddell, who was on his cell phone in conversation with Robbins Mayor Theron Bell after the county board had recessed.
Commissioner Nick Picerno added, “I’m not sure of the content of the meeting. Larry and I will be there, and we will listen to what they say.”
Board Chairman Tim Lea brought up the matter near the end of the county commissioners’ meeting late Tuesday afternoon. Lea reported a conversation with Bell, who said the Robbins town attorney had advised that the meeting, as proposed, might violate the state’s Open Meetings Law.
Lea quoted County Attorney Misty Leland as calling it a legal exemption to the law.
“It is our board’s position that we called it on sound legal grounds,” Lea said.
At issue is the property acquisition exemption spelled out by state law. Elected local governing boards are required to hold meetings in public, with a few specific exemptions, such as personnel matters, property acquisition and confidential lawyer/client consultations.
Lea said that Bell suggested a joint meeting with less than a quorum of each board in attendance. Under the law, elected officials are not required to meet in open session if a quorum is not present. In the case of the county board, three members constitute a quorum.
Caddell said that after his conversation with Bell, he was unsure whether the nonquorum meeting of the two boards would actually be held. He said she was to call him back later to confirm the Robbins participation.
The original meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. today in the conference room at the County Public Works Complex.
Bell was not alone in questioning the legality of the closed meeting.
During the public-comment period earlier in the meeting, Doug Middaugh, a Pinehurst resident, also questioned the justification for closing the joint meeting to the public.
“I would like to begin by saying that the goal of government transparency is at the heart of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law,” he said. “Unfortunately, it is apparent that this board intends to knowingly ignore this fundamental principle of good governance by virtue of its planned closed meeting tomorrow with the Robbins Board of Commissioners.”
Among the reasons cited by Middaugh was that the board was “using the secrecy of the closed meeting for another purpose to inappropriately discuss in private with the Robbins commissioners the aspects of an offer by Robbins concerning water and sewer issues.” He said this and other aspects of the matter conflict with the language of state law.
Middaugh asked the commissioners to postpone the meeting and reschedule it as an open meeting.
“Anything short of this establishes a low watermark for this board in terms of how it conducts the people’s business,” Middaugh said.
In other business, the commissioners agreed to call a public hearing for their May 17 meeting to consider consolidation of the Circle V/Vass and Cameron fire departments.
Contact Florence Gilkeson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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