Lee Commissioners advised in advance of town hall 'difficulties'
The Lee County Board of Commissioners was warned of the “inherent difficulties” of holding a public meeting within the private Carolina Trace Gated Properties days before members of the public and one county commissioner were turned away from the open meeting.
Lee County Commissioners voted Monday night to release a previously confidential memo from Lee County Attorney Neil Yarborough to the board that discussed the “legal problems associated” with the March 7 public town hall meeting taking place at Carolina Trace and insisted that the board “come up with a foolproof, convenient and expeditious means” for residents to obtain free and easy access to the meeting.
Some members of the public, including Lee County Commissioner Amy Dalrymple, were turned away at the Carolina Trace gate when they refused to give their names to enter the public town hall meeting at the Carolina Trace Clubhouse because it violated the North Carolina open meeting laws. Dalrymple was allowed to enter the gated properties during her second attempt and after a Lee County Sheriff deputy spoke to the guard.
Reading from a press release Monday night, Lee County Commissioner Chairman Charlie Parks said he was sorry for the problems that arose during the meeting and pledged to try to prevent similar mishaps in the future.
“After the initial advertisements were made of this public meeting, I became aware of the fact that there may be problems related to North Carolina’s [open meetings laws],” Park said. “In fact, the county attorney gave me certain advice related to this issue and provided me with a method of addressing certain access issues if I decided to proceed with the meeting.”
The original public meeting notice stated only residents of Carolina Trace would be able to attend the meeting. After The Herald and members of the public raised objections, a revised notice was released that stated “the town hall meeting is open to the public; however, parking is limited. Commissioners will be having town hall meetings in other locations across the county in the coming months. If a citizen wishes to attend the meeting at Carolina Trace and has a problem at the gate, please have the guard contact Mr. Lloyd Jennings."
According to Yarborough’s memo, the county does not have the authority to require people to pre-register to attend an open meeting, and having residents attempt to contact Jennings is not a foolproof or easy way of obtaining entrance to the meeting.
The attorney recommended someone from the Carolina Trace Homeowners Association with the authority to grant immediate access to anybody be stationed at the front gate with a sheriff's deputy.
“The reason I suggest the deputy sheriff being there is to provide an enhanced sense of security and also have a county representative present at this point of administration to make sure there are no delays or other problems related to admission,” Yarborough wrote. “I do not want this critical point of our liability under the Open Meeting Law left in private hands without some public presence.”
After receiving the county attorney’s memo and realizing people planned to attend the meeting, Parks said it would be best to have the meeting as scheduled and “implement the necessary access safeguards to insure compliance.”
“As it turned out, for a variety of reasons, despite my best efforts, problems did arise and for this I am sorry,” Parks said Monday. “However, a good faith attempt was made to comply with the [open meetings laws], and no board action was taken at this meeting.”
The Carolina Trace town hall was meant to be one of many throughout the county to apprise residents of the county’s successes in the last year and to solicit input for the upcoming budget.
“Finally, realizing, from experience, the difficulties in having a public meeting at a privately owned location, it is my intention to never call such a meeting again in the future,” Parks said. “If my plan of holding geographically disbursed town hall meetings is to continue, they will occur in publicly owned facilities.”
Dalrymple said she was glad the memo was released and that Parks took responsiblity for the meeting, but that she still didn't understand why the attorney's instructions were not followed.
"It was a fairly simple fix to just have a deputy at the gate to make sure that folks were allowed into the open meeting," she said. "I have yet to receive a direct and complete answer on why that didn't happen. And I have tried."