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CALABASH — Town commissioners have approved release of closed-session minutes from six meetings last year.
The minutes document closed sessions the town board of commissioners took part in on April 9, May 14, June 11, July 9, Aug. 8 and Sept. 10, 2013.
The minutes were requested by resident Michael Herring, who campaigned as a write-in candidate in last November’s town commissioners race.
Herring requested the minutes be verbatim regarding a foreclosure on property owned by Theresa Couick.
Calabash Town Attorney Mac Tyson advised that the town only release general accounts of the executive sessions. Tyson advised the board in a Dec. 24 memo and at its Jan. 14 meeting that his recommendation was based on his speaking recently on the telephone with David Lawrence, adjunct professor with the University of North Carolina School of Government.
“I respectfully request that you please bear in mind the following: If the board chooses to disregard and not follow this recommendation and to instead release records or documents other than as recommended by me, your town attorney is not responsible for any resulting repercussions that may occur thereafter,” Tyson wrote in the memo directed to Mayor Mary Knight and town commissioners.
At last week’s board meeting, town commissioner Daria Buccilli said the N.C. attorney general advised verbatim minutes should be released.
Town clerk Kelley Southward said there is no question minutes are public record and that closed minutes can be released as long as the purpose of the closed session is no longer frustrated. She said it is up to the board to determine that.
“There’s no question they’re public records; they are,” Southward said. “You’re obligated to release them, but that’s what you have to decide.”
Town commissioner Jody Nance said he would vote not to release the minutes until they have a better description on how the board wants them.
“We don’t do verbatim,” he said, noting the minutes are usually more general.
Tyson said verbatim minutes were prepared for him strictly for his reviews in May.
Holding up a general accounting of the minutes, Tyson said that is all that should be released.
“I have never in my life until tonight seen someone request verbatim (minutes),” Tyson said.
He said it has to do with “private activity” as opposed to “public activity” and that attorney-client privilege needs to be protected rather than waived and thrown away.
Frayda S. Bluestein, associate dean and professor of public law and and government at the UNC School of Government, said this week there is no legal requirement for minutes or general accounts to be verbatim.
“If there is a recording that exists, it is a public record, but
it is subject to the same exception as minutes and general accounts, in that it can be withheld if necessary to avoid frustrating the purpose of the closed session,” Bluestein wrote in a response email to the Beacon on Tuesday, citing N.C. General Statute 143-318.10(e).
If there was discussion about litigation, court records regarding that will likely be public records available from the clerk of court, Bluestein added.
Buccilli, speaking during discussion on another agenda item at the Jan. 14 meeting, said she has been going through Tyson’s contract.
“I feel it’s not necessary he’s here at every meeting,” she said, noting it’s costly for the town and the town needs to look at ways of cutting back.
Buccilli said the town paid former town attorney Mark Lewis $13,000 in a year’s time compared with $48,000 to Tyson.
“That’s a big jump,” she said.
Board members debated whether it’s necessary for Tyson to attend every town meeting.
Town commissioner Emily DiStasio, presiding over the meeting as mayor pro tem, said where appropriate and necessary, the board could let Tyson know in advance if he’s needed at a meeting.
Nance said there are ways “we can tighten our belt.”
Board members said they can rely more on email correspondence with Tyson to help cut expenses.
Laura Lewis is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.