EDITORIAL: Accountability is key

May. 30, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

Things tend to get messy, and emotions can get raw, when citizens and the government they support get entangled in legal action.

There’s rarely a clean, friendly resolution, but we think in the case of Jay Calendine’s lawsuit against three members of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, the resolution was about as clean as could be hoped for.

Calendine this week decided to drop the suit he filed back in March against the commission board as a whole and against individual commissioners Andre Knecht, Kirk Smith and Charlie Parks regarding a “town hall”-style meeting the board had in the gated Carolina Trace community. Calendine’s suit rightly claimed the meeting violated the state’s open meetings law. The law, in fact, was for all intents and purposes also broken when Calendine was asked (as were several others, including Commissioner Amy Dalrymple) to provide their names to a guard at the Carolina Trace gate before being granted entry.

As part of his legal complaint, Calendine — and this is pretty standard in such suits — also asked for the legal expenses he incurred in filing to suit to be covered by the defendants, namely, Knecht, Smith and Parks.

Calendine was right to file suit. Someone needed to hold the board accountable for what took place, and when he initially was denied entry into the meeting, Calendine was in the perfect position and prepared to take his complaints to the next level. You’ll remember that many alarms were sounded well in advance of the “town hall” meeting by advocates of open government (including Calendine), and that the county found itself scrambling to make “good faith” accommodations for a public meeting in a very private community.

The county, and the commissioners, hoped for proper execution and certainly didn’t intend for things to go awry. But an already deteriorating situation went further south when, for whatever reason (miscommunication, confusion, outright obstinacy, etc.) guards at Carolina Trace asked some who wanted to attend the meeting to provide their names first, even though the county claims it went to great lengths to assure that anyone who wanted to attend the session could do so without hassle and without prejudice.

The county, as was its proper prerogative, fought the suit. When the board of commissioners decided for the county proper (not the named commissioners) to foot the bill for any legal fees associated with defending itself (again, pretty standard practice), Calendine ultimately decided — again, rightly — that enough was enough.

Calendine’s intent was accountability, and this all played out in probably just about the exact way that most everyone (except for Calendine) wanted it to. For his part, he wanted the actions of the commissioners ruled “illegal and unlawful,” as well as for the court to prevent any reoccurring meetings that violate the open meetings law. And he wanted the defendants to cough up attorney’s fees and costs, for the three named commissioners to be held personally accountable financially, and any other relief deemed “just, fit and proper.”

Not all of that happened. (And keep in mind that money wasn’t the prime issue here, ever. Money — because attorneys have to be paid — was an operational element, not a punitive one. “This was never about money,” Calendine himself said. “We made the response that needed to be made, but have no desire to hit the county with a huge bill.”) But the fact is, even now the suit is history, Calendine’s actions hammered home a point to the commissioners and to the county. The suit served the purpose it was designed for. Lessons were learned all around.

And while his detractors have hammered Calendine for what they see as his short-sightedness (among a litany of other perceived sins), the obvious is so plain to see: had the tables been turned, and the Democratic members of the board and their political posse been the organizers of that meeting, their detractors (the same as Calendine’s) would have been crying “foul” just as loudly, if not more loudly, than Calendine did.

The main takeaway here is that there needed to be accountability for the errors that occurred, however unintentional. That’s happened, with just enough help from the judicial process as to ensure that everyone took the errors seriously.