Judge halts Warren’s removal hearing; orders temporary restraining order

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Filing admits Warren violated state’s open meetings law

By Caroline Curran, Reporter

BOLIVIA—A court order has temporarily halted a hearing to remove county commissioner Charles Warren from his post on the county’s social services board.

Superior Court Judge Jay Hockenberry on Thursday, Jan. 12, granted Warren a temporary restraining order, which protects him from removal proceedings.

A hearing, originally scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17, was to determine if there was just cause to remove Warren from the county’s social services board “for the abuse of your discretion as DSS chair by removing members and media representatives from open meetings and threatening members of the DSS board with suspension,” according to a hearing notice delivered to Warren.

Warren’s attorney Gary Shipman, who previously represented the DSS board, argued county commissioners, “have no legal right to remove or attempt to remove [Warren] from his duly appointed position as a member of the Brunswick County Board of Social Services.”

The temporary restraining order expires Jan. 30.

A hearing on the matter has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, Jan. 30, before Superior Court Judge Jack Hooks.

Open meeting violation

In his complaint, Shipman admits Warren broke the state’s open meetings law at the Dec. 13 meeting in question.

At the Dec. 13 DSS meeting, Warren removed DSS board member Pat Sykes from the meeting and suspended her from the board. He also threw out a Beacon reporter for challenging the legality of going into closed session for attorney-client privilege as outlined in North Carolina General Statute 143-318.11(a)(3). The DSS board doesn’t have an attorney, the reporter pointed out.

In his complaint, Shipman admits to the N.C. Open Meetings Law violation, saying Warren cited the wrong statute.

“Certainly a public body cannot close a meeting under the auspices of attorney-client privilege when they have no attorney,” Mike Tadych, an attorney with the North Carolina Press Association, said.

“While there may be some reasonable discretion in what constitutes disruption under G.S. 143-318.17, it is exceedingly doubtful that politely raising an objection to a motion to go into closed session under a provision of the law under which a public body does not qualify could constitute the type of disruption requiring removal or being charged with a crime,” Tadych said.

The Dec. 13 violation was not Warren’s first open meetings violation. Warren previously entered into a closed session by improperly stating the correct statute that legally authorizes a board to go in to closed session while Shipman was at an Aug. 31, 2010, meeting, serving as DSS counsel.

Then in September 2010, also under Shipman’s legal counsel, Warren and the DSS board again entered into an improperly closed session at an emergency meeting to discuss then-interim DSS director Neil Walters’ contract.

When asked at the time about the nature of the emergency meeting, Shipman said it was because the board had instructed him “last week” to contact Vanguard Staffing to seek out a possible interim director.

Shipman said the board directed him to contact Vanguard at their last meeting, which was the Sept. 10, 2010, emergency meeting. No discussion took place at that meeting in open session, and Shipman said they were permitted by law to discuss this during closed session, saying they were “considering the fitness of an employee or prospective employee.”

A contract employee is not covered under the personnel provision of the Open Meetings Law.

“The staffing agency contract itself confirms that whoever fills the role of a warm body under the contract is undoubtedly an employee of the staffing agency,” Tadych said after reviewing the contract between the county and Vanguard Staffing.

“Likewise, the board cannot avail itself of the 143-318.11(a)(6) to discuss that person’s performance, etc., as they are not a public employee,” Tadych said.

When asked if the board improperly discussed contacting a staffing agency in closed session under the personnel provision, Tadych said, “It appears that they may have.”

Warren once again attempted to enter an improper closed session at an August 2011 DSS meeting to discuss Sykes’ “behavior.”

A Beacon reporter—the same one he later removed from a meeting for objecting to his illegal move to closed session—told Warren such a move would be a violation of the open meetings laws for two reasons. Warren cited “143-318” as the allowable provision, not one of the nine provisions.

According to 143-318.11(a)(1-9), discussing a board member or his or her behavior is not permitted in closed session.

“A public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting,” N.C. General Statute 143-318.11(a)(6) states.

Legal representation, outstanding fees

Shipman served as DSS attorney for several meetings before county commissioners terminated his contract last January, but Shipman continued to do unauthorized legal work at Warren’s request.

Both Warren and Shipman have previously admitted Shipman continued to work at Warren’s request even after commissioners fired him Jan. 18, 2011.

Shipman has billed the county for about $4,000 of unauthorized legal work since commissioners terminated his contract, assistant county manager Steve Stone said.

Stone said he would not pay for any legal services billed after Jan. 21, 2011, when Stone wrote a letter to Shipman saying he would no longer pay Shipman for legal services for the DSS board or for Warren.

“As I stated previously, the board has directed that any engagement with you be terminated and has disapproved any payments to you for additional legal services. The County is therefore not authorized to, and will not, pay for any further services you provide to the Department of Social Services or Mr. Warren,” Stone wrote to Shipman.

Shipman was retained by the board in August 2010, “for the purpose of representing them in connection with proceedings of the Office of Administrative Hearings initiated by the Director and disciplinarily [sic] actions against the director,” according to the contract.

Stone said Shipman had previously billed the county for work he considered outside the scope of the contract, and therefore would not pay Shipman.

According to invoices filed with the county between Sept. 30, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2010, Shipman has billed the county $19,440.

Nine items were billed between Jan. 21 and Jan. 28, 2011, which would not be paid.

Some items Stone said were out of the scope of Shipman’s contract in previous invoices include billing the county more than $400 to research a code of ethics issue with the University of North Carolina Institute of Government, and another almost $200 to draft a letter from Warren to county commissioners chairman Bill Sue about county attorney Huey Marshall.

Stone said he told Shipman the county would not pay for that letter or for Warren’s legal research.

Warren and Shipman have both said Warren requested Shipman research the code of ethics matter. At the time, Warren was under censure proceedings for violations of the county’s code of ethics. He has since been censured.

Warren also said he had board permission to engage Shipman to write the letter about Marshall to Sue, but at a Dec. 14, 2010, DSS meeting, board members stated they never granted Warren permission, or even discussed the letter.

Warren requests ousted attorney as DSS counsel

At Tuesday night’s commissioners’ meeting, Warren requested Shipman represent the Department of Social Services.

Warren’s motion to hire Shipman received only his vote, and, therefore failed.

Warren said he checked with “four or five” attorneys who either weren’t interested or who withdrew because of “chaos” on the DSS board.

“Mr. Warren, we discharged Mr. Shipman previously,” commissioners chairman Bill Sue said. “I, for one, I’m not going to vote for someone who we previously voted to discharge.”

“What are you going to do? Are you going to order [county attorney] Huey Marshall to represent me, represent the DSS board?” Warren demanded.

“No, I’m not going to order Mr. Marshal,” Sue replied.

The DSS board does not have legal representation.

Investigation unfounded

Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram on Tuesday said an investigation into viral videos about Warren was deemed “unfounded.”

The investigation is now closed.

Warren, 67, of 229 NE 40th St., Oak Island, filed an incident report with the sheriff’s office on Dec. 28. He claimed YouTube videos that poked fun at him were “threatening” and were “communicating threats.”

At the time of the report, there were four videos on YouTube about Warren, all of which were posted by the username Brunswick1764.

Warren’s recent police report was the second he filed with the sheriff’s office this year.

Ingram said the previous sheriff’s office investigation into claims made by Warren that he was being racially harassed and discriminated against by sheriff’s deputies and fellow commissioners was also deemed unfounded. That investigation cost county taxpayers $868.49.

The most recent investigation involved six deputies and cost about $774.14.

Caroline Curran is a staff writer at The Brunswick Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or by email at ccurran@brunswickbeacon.com.