Water Negotiations Must Be Held in Open Session, Attorney Says
Robbins and Moore County commissioners may not legally meet in closed session to haggle over the county buying the town reservoir or its water plant.
Robbins town attorney Douglas R. Gill told county attorney Misty Leland in a recent letter that the state's opening meetings laws don't allow it.
There has been much discussion over trying to find some way town and county commissioners could meet privately to negotiate.
Robbins has water and a large and potentially expandable reservoir, but its processing plant is in poor shape and was closed years ago.
The town currently buys water from Montgomery County. Moore County needs water for the growing southern end, and a study years ago pointed to a countywide water plan that would begin by combining Robbins resources with county needs.
Eventually, it might lead to an intake above High Falls from the Deep River feeding a new processing plant in Robbins, with storage in the town reservoir.
The reservoir, water plant, sewer plant, tanks and lines are important properties and real estate that belong to the residents of Robbins - increasingly important as assets supporting municipal borrowing power - town leaders say.
Robbins and the county have exchanged proposals, with the latest one from Robbins being studied by county engineers before the commissioners respond. It links the municipal water and sewer services assets and proposes any acquisition - whether by purchase or lease - be for the entire system.
At last Thursday's Town Board meeting, Mayor Theron Bell advised the commissioners that the town attorney could not find any legal way for both boards to meet in closed session. Gill said state law does have an exception for a board considering the purchase of real property, such as the water systems of Robbins.
But the problem is that there is not a matching exception for a board negotiating a sale. The exception applies only to the buyer, not the seller. Robbins could not meet in closed session to talk about selling any town property, according to Gill.
"There would be no problem about the two boards meeting together in closed session if both of them were acquiring real property, but if I understand the situation correctly, that is not what would be occurring," Gill said. "Therefore, I see no justification for the boards meeting together about water plant arrangements, but only because there seems to be no basis for Robbins to go into closed session, whether meeting jointly or separately."
The only way private negotiations between the county and the town could take place would be for the county commissioners to meet in open session, vote to go into closed session to consider property purchase, and then invite some members of the Robbins board to joint them.
That would be legal as long as the number of town commissioners in the meeting was less than a quorum, according to Gill.
"It seems to me that it might be possible for the board of county commissioners to have a closed session to discuss the acquisition of the water plant and invite two members of the Robbins board to attend that closed session," Gill said. "In short, unless there is some justification for a closed session by the Robbins board, I can see no proper way for both boards to meet in closed session to discuss the water plant acquisition, whether meeting jointly or meeting separately."
State open meetings law, in his opinion, bars the very sort of back-room bargaining that has been urged as a way to make a deal both town and county could live with.
Any deal - even if worked out during a closed session of the county board of commissioners - would still have to be discussed and voted on in open session by both boards. According to Gill, negotiation also would have to be done in open session where the full town board is involved.
Contact John Chappell at email@example.com.
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