LEE COUNTY: Some turned away from town hall meeting at Trace

Mar. 09, 2014 @ 08:40 PM

Some members of the public, including Lee County Commissioner Amy Dalrymple, were turned away from a public town hall held within the private Carolina Trace Gated Properties Friday night.

To enter the gated properties — and subsequently the 7 p.m. town hall meeting at the Carolina Trace Clubhouse, organized by the Lee County Board of Commissioners — individuals were asked to give their name to the guards at the entrance of Carolina Trace. Dalrymple, among others, refused to give her name or any other identifying information because she said being required to provide a name violates North Carolina's Open Meetings laws. She was allowed into the properties during her second attempt, after a Lee County Sheriff's deputy spoke to the guard.

"The law clearly states you can not ask for anyone's name or ID or take their driver's license number when you go to an open meeting," she said to the town hall crowd Friday night. "So we are, in fact, participating in an illegal meeting right now. And I am really upset about that. I just want to be honest with you."

It was the board's intention to hold several town hall meetings in various communities across Lee County, Dalrymple said. However, holding a public meeting in Carolina Trace presented a problem, she said.

Dalrmyple said she believes strongly in transparency, and that any Lee County resident should be allowed into an open meeting without presenting identification.

Tony Forgione, president of the Carolina Trace Property Owners Association, said Saturday that people were turning the "molehill (incident) into a mountain."

"Whatever happened, happened," he said. "It was handled properly at the gate, but there seems to be some sort of miscommunication."

Forgione said he didn't wish to further comment on the incident.

Amanda Martin, an open meetings law expert who provides legal counsel for the North Carolina Press Association and North Carolina newspapers, said while this specific issue has not been decided on in courts, the law requires official meetings to be held in locations that are accessible to the public.

A public body can't require a name or any other identification for entrance into a public meeting, she said. 

Jay Calendine, an active member in the local Democrat Party and self-proclaimed political activist, said he was originally turned away from the Carolina Trace gate for not giving his name. After a second attempt, Calendine said he gave the guard his name because it was important to him to attend the meeting.

"If you notice, the notable attendees were Republican," he said immediately after the meeting. "If you wanted to speak at this event, you had to sign up on a clipboard that was positioned next to literature about the (local) Republican Women's (club). Some of us were concerned that this was more of a political rally than an actual meeting."

Calendine and Dalrymple both said they knew of a handful of people who were also turned away from the meeting for not giving their name.

Lee County Commissioner Chairman Charlie Parks said during the meeting that he takes responsibility for the miscommunication, but that he's attended public meetings in the Carolina Trace Clubhouse before and never had to give his name or had problems at the gate.

"There was a miscommunication, and hopefully it won't happen again," he said. "I love this community, and I think it's a great community. So this is just one of those things that happened. It wasn't on purpose. It was unfortunate."

Parks said he'd spoke to Carolina Trace Association representatives as early as last May to set up a public meeting for the commissioners.

"They asked 'Would the Democrats be there?'" Parks said. "And we said 'Yes.' This was going to be an open meeting, and we wanted everyone to come. This wasn't going to be a political meeting."

Parks said he worked with Forgione to pick a date for the town hall.  

"We went back and forth on some dates, and we could never come up with dates they could agree to or we could come to," Parks said. "We were advised by members of the community to go to the manager of the (Carolina Trace) Club (House)."

Forgione was "irate" that the commissioners had "gone around him," Parks said.

"We never got an answer, and we were running out of time," Parks said. 

On Saturday, Parks said he knew what caused the miscommunication but wouldn't publicly state the reason, instead saying it would only cause more animosity.

A public notice for the town hall released Tuesday stated, "Since the meeting is being held in a gated community, only residents from Carolina Trace will be allowed to attend."

A revised public notice was released Wednesday after The Herald and some members of the public questioned the original notice.

Parks said "it didn't click" that only allowing Carolina Trace residents in the meeting would be a problem.

"I guess we didn't see it as a problem, but we did get it changed," he said Friday night after the town hall. 

The revised notice 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 the Carolina Trace and has a problem at the gate, please have the guard contact Mr. Lloyd Jennings."

Jennings is a member Carolina Trace Clubhouse Board of Directors, Parks said. Jennings is also the founder of the Lee County chapter of the right-leaning Americans for Prosperity. 

The dates and locations for the other proposed town halls have not been set yet, Parks said. 

The intention of the meeting was to get public input on the county's upcoming budget, he said, adding he hoped those who did attend found it beneficial. Parks gave a presentation highlighting the county's successes and information about the county's budget at the beginning of the meeting, and nearly a dozen attendees asked the board questions ranging from the future of economic development to water at Carolina Trace.