BY: Hood Richardson
I have written and spoken a lot more about North Carolina’s “Open Meetings Laws”, ethics, honesty, and back room deals than I have wanted to. But, it seems, the more I write the worse things get. The last 30 minutes of the April Beaufort County Commissioners meeting glaringly focused on and brought into full public light what I have complained about for the last five years. The back room deal.
Based on questions posed by this writer, it is obvious that the Chairman of our Board, Frankie Waters, and some of the staff are clueless about ethical standards. The dictionary defines ethics as “Moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conditions of an activity”. Our moral standards in our western society come mostly from biblical teachings and our laws.
Some try to make “ethics” complicated. It truly is not. Being ethical simply means doing the right thing. And it is a bit like being pregnant…either you are or you are not. There is no Mulberry Bush to beat around.
The open meetings laws direct that the only legally enforceable actions by commissioners must take place in an open to the public, advertised to the public, meeting with a majority present. All business, discussions, and votes must be done in an open to the public meeting. The general statutes then defines certain activities that may be conducted behind closed doors. Even these activities must be handled in very precise ways. Some of these are, negotiations to purchase real estate, some personnel matters, given direction to the attorney etc.
Open meetings mean all commissioners are present and are receiving the same information nominally at the same time.
Within a board of county commissioners, no commissioner has any more authority than any other commissioner. The chairman is empowered to conduct the meeting in an orderly way. The chairman must vote on all matters just like the other commissioners. The majority rules. The only other powers of the Chairman are to declare a state of emergency in the absence of the majority. Commissioners are taught in their training that no individual commissioner has any authority outside of a meeting. The only authority they have is when in a legal meeting.
To be legal, a public notice must be published before the meeting takes place, unless it is an “emergency” meeting. Minutes must be taken and these minutes become a part of the public record.
North Carolina law and dozens of appellant court cases have clearly established that the public’s business must be conducted in public.
Now for the ethics part. It is the open meetings law and the general statutes that guide the ethical (just substitute ‘honest’ for ‘ethical’) behavior of all commissioners including the chairman.
During the past five years, Beaufort County has suffered from board chairmen have represented themselves as spokesmen and mediators for the entire board. This is back room dealing. Chairman Waters has repeatedly told the School Board that he has four votes to do this or that. His recent claim is that he has four votes to resolve the Sheriff’s School Resource Officer (SRO) issue. Chairman Waters found out at the joint meeting with the School Boart that he did not have four votes. Is lying un-ethical? Waters had an opportunity to do the right (ethical, honest) thing by calling a meeting of Commissioners to deal with the situation before the Board of Commissioners met with the School Board. Waters refused to call the meeting, continuing to tell the School Boat about his four votes. Waters refused to allow the Board of Commissioners to act as a board by majority vote. This is un-ethical.
Another example of un-ethical (just substitute dishonest) behavior by Chairman Waters was when he attempted to summon the Chairman of the School Board and the Sheriff to his home to deal with the situation. Waters graciously allowed each to bring one person with them. This violates the law. This would have been a private meeting, in a private home, away from the public’s view and without the presence of the press. How many laws did and would have Chairman Waters violate by making the written offer of a meeting. Wisely, the School Superintendent refused to take part in such a shady situation.
Nothing shows how clueless Frankie Waters is about the Law and ethics than for him to have had the County Clerk to send the invitation. The Clerk needs a full course in ethics. She is an accomplice to this illegal act and should not have sent the illegal notice.
For those of you who believe you are dealing with the Board of County Commissioners when Frankie Waters tells you he has four votes, unless the board has already voted in open session, he is not telling the truth. Call the Clerk, ask for the vote count and date. It is un-ethical (just say dishonest) for any commissioner to tell anyone he has four votes unless the votes have already been done in a public and open session. There are no guarantees until the board meets and votes.
Another unethical (just say dishonest) trick that has been used is for the Chairman to take one or two commissioners with him to meet with someone to handle an issue. Unless the entire board meeting in open session has voted and designated the chairman and/or others to meet, all who represent themselves as representing the board are acting unethical, (just say dishonest).
Whenever, commissioners are presented with anything and told we have no choice but to vote for them, watch out something crooked is going on. This recently happened with the contract with Pitt County to keep prisoners. There was no negotiation and no notice to commissioners and Beaufort County got taken advantage of.
It was the Chairman of the Board and the Sheriff who shut down the jail about two years ago over the jail doors. They did not notify Commissioners. A meeting to address the situation was requested. The meeting was denied. This is a great example of back room dealing. Unethical, just say dishonest. That cost us 2.5 million dollars.
It became embarrassingly apparent during the April Commissioners meeting that Frankie waters does not have a clue about ethics, or the law. Waters defense for his bad behavior was that the has attended two (two hour) ethics courses. Unless a person has a sense of fair play and a knowledge of the laws that apply, ethics courses are useless.
This article only scratches the surface of Chairman Waters unethical behavior. Check back later for more.
Editor's addendum: The Beaufort Observer made a formal Public Records request on March 30 asking for copies of email related to this issue. To date we have not received any response except a acknowledgment that the request had been received. Just one more example of Beaufort County Government thumbing its nose at the law.
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