VIDEO INCLUDED: DSS board breaks law; illegally enters into closed session

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Chairman throws board member, reporter out of open meeting

By Caroline Curran, Reporter

Members of the Brunswick County Social Services board broke the law on Tuesday when they improperly entered into closed session under the attorney-client privilege provision of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law.

The problem? The DSS board does not have an attorney, either retained or employed by the board, as outlined in North Carolina General Statute 143-318.11(a)3.

“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.

To enter into a closed session, North Carolina General Statute outlines the proper way to enter into a closed session. Any motion to enter into closed session must clearly state one of nine exemptions to the North Carolina Open Meetings Law, per N.C. General Statute 143-318.11(c).

Board member David Grimes read, at Warren’s direction, a statement saying the reason for going into a closed session was N.C. GS 143.318(a) 3 and (a) 6, to consult with an attorney and to discuss personnel, respectively.

A Beacon reporter told DSS chairman and county commissioner Charles Warren she objected to this move to enter into closed session for attorney-client privilege citing the law, but Warren had the reporter removed from the meeting.

The reporter was the second person Warren had removed from the meeting.

Warren had board member Pat Sykes removed, not once, but twice from the meeting.

Warren repeatedly said Sykes was out of order, asking Brunswick County Chief Deputy Charlie Miller to remove Sykes.

Ironically, one of the deputies who Warren asked to remove Sykes from the meeting was the same deputy Warren previously filed a police report against, saying he sat “too closely” to him at county commissioners meetings.

A nearly $1,000 sheriff’s office investigation ruled the claims of intimidation and racial harassment were unfounded.

Tadych also questioned the legality of Warren’s removal rampage.

“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.

Warren also said he suspended Sykes until the end of her term.

Sykes said she would be at the next meeting.

“He violated my rights as a board member and my rights as a citizen,” Sykes said.

‘Out of order’

Sykes’ first removal came mere minutes into the start of the meeting.

While Grimes was discussing a motion to make local attorney Mac Tyson parliamentarian and clerk to the board, Sykes asked, “Can I say something?”

“Not yet, you’re out of order,” Warren responded.

Sykes then tried again, raising her hand and saying, “Mr. chairman, May I?”

Warren let Sykes speak for a moment, then interrupted her, banging his gavel and saying, “Excuse me, you’re out of order.”

“No sir, I’m not out of order. No sir, I’m not. I have a right to add an item to the agenda, sir. No, I’m not going to quit…”

“I’m going to ask you to leave this meeting,” Warren interrupted.

Sykes refused to leave, at which point Warren asked Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Charlie Miller to remove Sykes.

Miller first responded he would not remove Sykes, saying she wasn’t breaking the law.

“As the chairman I can ask her to be escorted out of this meeting, and I’m asking the sheriff to escort her from this meeting,” Warren said.

“No sir, you cannot,” Sykes said, attempting to get back to board business.

“I would like to add to the agenda an action item and my action item is a personnel issue. Do I have a second?” Sykes said.

Board member Tina Jackson seconded Sykes’ motion.

“Mr. chairman, we are out of order. We are out of order. The board’s out of order. We need to come to order,” board member Bernest Hewett, who serves as parliamentarian, said.

After a few moments of silence and looks exchanged between Hewett and Warren, Warren said, “First of all, I have asked the sheriff, and as the chairman of this board, I can ask any member to leave if she’s being disruptive.  Mr. Sheriff, you’re refusing?,” Warren asked Miller.

“I’m not refusing Mr. Warren, but she’s not breaking the law to where I can remove her from a public meeting. I’m not going to argue with you,” Miller said.

Warren again asked that he remove Sykes.

“The law very strictly defines ‘disruptive.’ And there are elements of that law for me to remove anybody,” Miller said.

Warren cited N.C. General Statute 143-387.17, which doesn’t exist.

N.C. General Statute 143-318.17 states, “A person who willfully interrupts, disturbs, or disrupts an official meeting and who, upon being directed to leave the meeting by the presiding officer, willfully refuses to leave the meeting is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”

Miller said he’s seen public boards “do a lot worse than this.”

“Are you telling me you want her arrested? I’m not going to remove anyone unless I arrest them,” Miller said.

Warren again instructed Sykes to leave.

“As a member of the board I have a right to make my motion…that is not being disruptive. No, I’m not going to leave this meeting because I’m part of this board,” Sykes said.

“I was entertaining information from Mr. Grimes, not you. And you interrupted more than once, so I’m asking you to leave. And if you refuse to leave, then I’m asking you [directed at Miller] to arrest her,” Warren said.

“Do you really want to do this,” Miller asked Warren about arresting Sykes.

“Yes, sir,” Warren replied.

“And you’re going to go to court?” Miller pressed.

“Yes, sir,” Warren again replied.

When Miller asked Sykes if she would leave, she left.

“Ms. Sykes, on your way out, you will be suspended for the rest of this term,” Warren said.

“You can’t suspend me. Mr. Warren, this is a voluntary position and you can’t do anything.”

Local First Amendment activist Ginny Quaglia spoke up, saying, “Mr. Warren, you should arrest me, too.”

Warren tried to have Quaglia removed, as well as a Beacon reporter, but Miller eventually quieted the room.

Sykes sat in the audience for several more minutes, as a member of the public, but when Warren finally spotted her in the front row, he had her removed again.

Open meetings laws and closed sessions in North Carolina

•To legally enter closed session: Per N.C. General Statute 143-318.11(c) , “A public body may hold a closed session only upon a motion duly made and adopted at an open meeting. Every motion to close a meeting shall cite one or more of the permissible purposes listed in subsection (a) of this section. A motion based on subdivision (a)(1) of this section shall also state the name or citation of the law that renders the information to be discussed privileged or confidential. A motion based on subdivision (a)(3) of this section shall identify the parties in each existing lawsuit concerning which the public body expects to receive advice during the closed session.”

•There are nine allowable exceptions to the Open Meeting Law.

The board cited 143-318.11(a)3, “To consult with an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney‑client privilege between the attorney and the public body, which privilege is hereby acknowledged.”

“General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant. The public body may consider and give instructions to an attorney concerning the handling or settlement of a claim, judicial action, mediation, arbitration, or administrative procedure. If the public body has approved or considered a settlement, other than a malpractice settlement by or on behalf of a hospital, in closed session, the terms of that settlement shall be reported to the public body and entered into its minutes as soon as possible within a reasonable time after the settlement is concluded.”

There was no attorney present, and therefore they improperly entered into closed session, a North Carolina Press Association attorney said.

They also cited 143-318.11(a)6, commonly known as the personnel provision, which was allowable, if they discussed DSS Director Patty Connelly, the only person the board can legally discuss in closed session.


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