Commissioners' illegal gathering aired in Calabash

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By Laura Lewis, Reporter

CALABASH—Mayor Anthony Clemmons and town attorney Mark Lewis urged three commissioners to be more mindful of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law after Clemmons encountered them together at a county meeting last week.

Clemmons called a special meeting Tuesday afternoon after commissioners Cecelia Herman, Emily DiStasio and John Melahn showed up at the Brunswick County Government Complex in Bolivia on April 16 for a meeting with county officials about the town’s future sewer project.

Clemmons, who also attended the meeting with town administrator Jeremy Cribb, pointed out a quorum consisting of the three Calabash commissioners was already present when he and Cribb entered the meeting room.

DiStasio then left the room, and the meeting ensued with the other commissioners, Clemmons and Cribb meeting with Brunswick County Manager Marty Lawing, public utilities Jerry Pierce and engineers connected with the sewer project.

Clemmons said it was his legal duty to take immediate action and call Tuesday’s meeting to address this and past problems with Herman, Melahn and DiStasio “being involved in an official meeting without the knowledge of board members including the mayor.”

In addition, Clemmons said the town “planning and zoning chairman and co-chairman have indicated that the same three have engaged in discussions of town business at planning and zoning board meetings in violation of the open meeting laws.”

Herman did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, stating she had a prior commitment. But both she and DiStasio disputed Clemmons’ statement that three commissioners constitute a quorum or that they had no right to attend the informational meeting.

Herman said she and DiStasio rode up to the county complex together last Thursday. She said they didn’t know whether Melahn, who serves on the town wastewater committee and usually attends the meetings with county officials, would also be attending.

Herman said she has had problems getting accurate information from Clemmons about the sewer project. She said they were told the county was going to open bids for sewer but learned Thursday bids haven’t gone out yet.

Clemmons, she said, “didn’t look very happy when he came in and said there was a quorum.”

Lawing said he was not aware of the situation prior to Clemmons’ arrival.

“I really don’t have any ideas on it, to be honest with you,” Lawing said Monday.

He said there was “small talk” going on prior to the start of the monthly sewer project update meeting with town officials.

“They had more representatives show up than they normally do,” he said. “That’s about all I know about it.”

Lawing said he isn’t aware of Calabash’s ordinance and what constitutes a quorum for its commissioners.

He said someone (DiStasio) got up and left before the meeting officially convened.

DiStasio said Tuesday she attended the April 16 meeting because it was a “progress meeting. I went there to listen, not to take action on any town business.”

Commissioner Forrest King said he didn’t think it was just a case of “you three showing up at the same place at the same time. You three have a history. I think maybe arrogance does come into play. You think you can get by with it. It’s not fair to the other board members, it’s not fair to the mayor, it’s not fair to the citizens.”

Commissioner Bill Dixon said Clemmons and Melahn, who serves on the wastewater committee, were entrusted to go to the county meetings to find out what’s going on with the town’s sewer project.

DiStasio said she left the meeting because she didn’t want to get into a confrontation.

“And, no, we don’t trust the mayor,” she said. “He said bids were in and the bids were not in.”

DiStasio also disputed Lewis’ assessment that three commissioners at a non-social gathering constitutes a quorum.

“In the case of this board, if three members are together, that is a violation of open meetings law,” Lewis advised.

“If there’s any possibility of town business being conducted and you walk into a room and two commissioners are there, you should turn and walk out,” he said.

King also took issue when DiStasio questioned what legal action, if any, could really be taken against them.

“It’s still not fair to the people,” he said. “You weren’t elected to hide behind illegal meetings to conduct business, and I think that you owe the general public an apology.”

DiStasio said she attended the meeting because “I wanted to hear for myself so I could report back to the people. So if I did wrong, I will apologize to the public, but I will not apologize to this board.”

Melahn said he blamed himself for perhaps implying to Herman that he did not plan to attend any more meetings for the week following last week’s eight-hour commissioners’ meeting that took place April 14. It lasted for five hours and then reconvened on April 15 for three hours.

King, however, said, “the likelihood John was not going to be at that meeting was fairly remote.”

Lewis advised board members to keep each other apprised of upcoming meetings outside regular board meetings so they’ll know who’s planning to attend and “you can get a sense who’s going to these meetings. You might want to just call each other and see, just as a suggestion.”

King also said DiStasio and Herman have been serving on town boards for enough years to be aware of open meetings rules.

“There’s just no reason not to know,” he said. “To have that much experience and not know that by now just makes you shake your head in wonder.”

Lewis said the reason to avoid an appearance of a violation is it creates a public perception.

“It’s something you should avoid,” he said.

Town administrator Cribb said his idea is it’s his role to serve as a buffer for situations that occur at town hall.

“I should feel the board is together and not fighting each other,” he said.

When that occurs, “then we’ve got a problem,” he said.

Local businessman Dean Spatholt took issue with DiStasio saying she doesn’t trust the mayor.

“We put him there to trust him to run our town,” he said. “You should have confidence in him to do that.”

Spatholt said he doesn’t trust the commissioners who showed up for the meeting with county officials where there wasn’t supposed to be a quorum.

“I would ask that you and Mrs. Herman step down because it’s a total conflict,” he said.