EDITORIAL: Lawsuit over meeting has merit

Apr. 18, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

It was only a matter of time.

Sooner or later, a lawsuit was bound to arise from a Lee County Commissioners’ public meeting last month that, if you’ll remember, was hardly public at all. Several people wanting to attend the town hall at Gated Carolina Trace Properties were asked to provide their names to gain entry and turned away when they refused.

As we have previously pointed out, this move not only flouted open meetings law, but showed a blatant disregard for the value of constituents — all of them — in the democratic process.

Jay Calendine, one such constituent who recently was named the Lee County Democratic Party second vice chair, found the offense so egregious that he took the matter to court on April 4.

Some may consider Calendine’s lawsuit frivolous, or akin to beating a dead horse. After all, Commissioner Chairman Charlie Parks has apologized for a problem he attributed to miscommunication.

The fact is, as the plaintiff points out in his suit, County Attorney Neil Yarborough cautioned the commissioners beforehand about the pitfalls of holding an open meeting in a closed community. They chose to proceed — and thus chose the consequences.

Calendine’s suit does not request any unreasonable measures. He asks that the meeting be declared illegal, that such meetings not be made a habit, that the defendants be responsible for the costs of the legal action, that three commissioners (Parks, Kirk Smith and Andre Knecht) be held accountable personally for “knowingly and intentionally committing the violations,” and finally any other redress the court deems “just, fit and proper.”

Calendine said he was most troubled by the commissioners acting contrary to their counsel’s advice — a decision that has yet to be fully explained. We, too, realize that everyone, even elected officials, make mistakes.

But not everyone has the benefit of an expert opinion ahead of time — which in this case was ignored.

This week, the defendants asked for the suit to be dropped with an argument that was frankly less clear — and less convincing — than Calendine’s. The response claims the plaintiff “lacks sufficient standing to prosecute,” and the plaintiff has failed to provide “sufficient material facts” to support his claim.

It also mentions that Commissioner Amy Dalrymple was not included in the suit. Of course not, she almost wasn’t admitted to the meeting herself. She didn’t agree with the proceedings, either — and used her time at the town hall to make her objection clear.

Bottom line, Calendine has a case. It’s difficult to justify a supposedly open meeting held on private property — especially when you are forewarned of “inherent difficulties.” Whether or not the intent was malicious, or those involved are truly contrite, someone should have had the sense or the courage to brand this a bad idea — and then take steps to fix the problem and ensure that the open meeting was indeed truly “open.” Another town hall went off without a hitch this week, and others planned later this month hopefully will be drama free, too.

As we’ve stated before, these sessions have value. But those responsible for the first, disastrous attempt should be held accountable and answer to the clear violation of the law.

This transgression can be forgiven, but it shouldn’t be swept under the rug.