Board Blatantly Violated the Law
"We probably should have listened to the advice of the county attorney," Moore County Commissioner Nick Picerno sheepishly said the other day.
After all, that's what we (the taxpayers) pay county attorneys for: to give elected officials the sound legal advice they need to keep them out of trouble. And we certainly don't elect those officials in the expectation that they will blatantly disregard that advice.
Yet that is what happened in the case of the Moore County board. They now stand publicly and deservedly embarrassed and criticized for having done so.
It's not as if these serious violations of North Carolina's Open Meetings Law were undertaken to allow the board to hold closed-door discussions on some matter of such urgent public importance and sensitivity that members might possibly have thought the offense was worth the risk. No, we're talking about the possible sale of county-owned land for a Bojangles' fast-food emporium, for gosh sakes.
Multiple Warnings Ignored
State law - which the commissioners vow to uphold when they're sworn in - is crystal-clear on this subject: Governmental boards may meet in closed session, under certain circumstances, to discuss buying land - but not to discuss selling it, as our board did. There's a good reason for that: Opening up the process can encourage higher offers from unexpected sources. It can also prevent cozy sweetheart deals.
It is not so surprising, perhaps, that Commis-sioner Tim Lea's fellow members would ignore his advice that they be more forthcoming on the details of the proposed land deal - until he went public with them. That is symptomatic of the dysfunctional nature of relationships among the various board members - especially as regards Lea.
What is surprising - and wholly unacceptable - is that the board would insist on proceeding with further secret discussions on this relatively piddling matter after turning a deaf ear to multiple warnings not to do so from County Attorney Misty Leland.
That could hardly be more clear than it is in this later-released transcript: "Misty said this was not supposed to be discussed in closed session. (No one acknowledged her statement)."
Compounding the Error
Having been caught with their hands in the cookie jar, the commissioners then compounded the error by acting as if they could pick and choose which materials from closed sessions they would release and which they would withhold.
First Chairman Larry Caddell proposed releasing only written minutes. Lea's motion that "voice recordings and additional documentation" also be turned over died for lack of a second.
Again, that is clearly a violation of the law. The board was legally required to release all such information, regardless of type, and it was not free to be selective about it. Mike Tadych, attorney for the N.C. Press Association, explained it this way: "The board does not get to choose what form of public record to release."
The Open Meetings Law is there to make sure the public's business is handled in the public. An elected body that blithely violates that principle violates the public trust.
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