LETTER: Clean it up, and move on
To the Editor:
After a closed ... [session] Monday night [May 11], County Commissioners Andre Knecht, Kirk Smith and Charlie Parks voted for a motion by Jim Womack to permit local tax dollars to pay for their individual attorneys in a lawsuit filed by a citizen over an alleged violation of the open meetings law. They should have not voted at all.
These counterfeit conservatives bellied up to the bar and voted to saddle the taxpayers with the cost of their attorneys. They ignored state law, dismissed their own ethics policy and violated their oaths of office. State law provides that any commissioner can ask to be excused voting “when involving the member’s own financial interest or official conduct.” Rules of procedures adopted by the board place the responsibility on each of them to make such a request. Not one of them did.
This leaves three ways that taxpayers will be tagged with the bill for the stubborn insistence on the gated meeting.
1. There is the hourly billing by [Attorney] Neil Yarborough for work on the case.
2. There will be the cost of defending each of the three commissioners.
3. There will be a check for the plaintiff’s lawyers, either as ordered by the court or agreed to in a settlement.
Let’s stop running up the tab and put this bungled mess behind. Take a practical stance and just stop spending money on contesting this case. Drop the high price outside counsel. Stop the legal bills that are being accrued by the plaintiff’s lawyer. Clean it up, and move on. And the three should absent themselves from any discussion of the case by the board or with the county attorney. They started this mess to start with.
Editor’s note: Frayda S. Bluestein, a local government expert who teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government, said it is legal for county commissioners in North Carolina to use taxpayer money for legal fees, although she couldn’t say how often commissioners choose outside counsel over the services of the county’s attorney. “State law specifically authorizes cities and counties to use public funds to defend public officials and employees who are sued in connection with their official duties,” Bluestein wrote in an email. “... The statute reflects the intent of the legislature to protect individual public officials and employees from incurring costs arising out lawsuits involving their public service in situations deemed appropriate by the governing board.”