Citizen files lawsuit over Trace town hall meeting

Lee commissioners named in open government complaint
Apr. 04, 2014 @ 06:43 PM

A local political activist filed a lawsuit against the Lee County Board of Commissioners Friday, which claims a public town hall held in a private, gated community was illegal.  

Doster, Post, Silverman, Foushee & Post attorney Kevin Foushee filed the lawsuit in Lee County Superior Court at noon Friday on behalf of Joseph "Jay" Calendine Jr., who initially raised concerns about a Lee County town hall meeting held at the private Gated Carolina Trace Properties on March 7.  Calendine and other members of the public, including Lee County Commissioner Amy Dalrymple, were turned away because they refused to give their name at the Carolina Trace gate to enter the Carolina Trace Country Club. After second attempts, Calendine and Dalrymple both were allowed into the meeting after they gave their names. 

The lawsuit also names Lee County Commissioners Charlie Parks, Kirk Smith and Andre Knecht, who attended the town hall meeting, and the Lee County government as defendants. 

“I believe in the power of democracy and the rule of law,” Calendine said Friday. “When government breaks the law, the only entities that can come to the rescue against corruption are a free press and free citizens. The press has reported on this, and, in many ways, done its due diligence, but I believe a citizen response needed to be made.”

Calendine added that he hopes all people who are friends of open government with stand in solidarity with him.

Lee County Clerk to the Lee County Board of Commissioners Gaynell Lee said the county had not been served by 5 p.m. Friday. Parks, Knecht and Smith all said they’d not been notified of the lawsuit and declined to comment.     

In the motion for injunctive relief, Calendine is seeking the following five things:

  • That the court enters a judgment declaring the defendants' actions “illegal and unlawful.”
  • That the court prevents the county, the commission board and the identified board members from holding reoccurring meetings that violate the open meetings law.
  • That the defendants be taxed with attorney's fees and the costs of this action. 
  • That Parks, Smith and Knecht be taxed personally for “knowingly and intentionally committing the violations by directly ignoring the advice of counsel for the county.”
  • Other and further relief as the court may deem “just, fit and proper.”

Foushee said what was most concerning for his client was not necessarily the “technical violation of the law,” but the disregard shown by certain commissioners toward the advice of their legal counsel. 

The Lee County Commissioners were warned of the “inherent difficulties” of holding a public meeting within the private community from Lee County Attorney Neil Yarborough days before the actual meeting. 

"We must come up with a foolproof, convenient and expeditious means of our citizens obtaining free and easy access to the meeting,” Yarborough wrote in a memo to the board three days before the town hall. 

Parks issued a press release during a March 17 commission meeting apologizing for the problems that arose during the town hall meeting. 

“As it turned out, for a variety of reasons, despite my best efforts, problems did arise, and for this I am sorry,” Parks said. “However, a good faith attempt was made to comply with the open meetings law, and no board action was taken at this meeting.”