The Pinehurst Hot Mess – Back to Court in re: Open Meetings complaint

The consensus among the Pinehurst Village Hall crowd and the sinister, shadowy cabal that currently controls village politics appears to be that stomping the guts out of people you don’t like trumps actual public service.

Open Meetings rules and laws are a serious thing.  Government officials need to conduct business in full view of the tax-paying, voting public.  The current dispute in Pinehurst dates back to September 2021, when then-Pinehurst mayor John Strickland and two allies on council allegedly conspired in secret via local government email to sabotage the political futures of two regular critics of Strickland and his three-member council majority.  The targets appeared to be then-council members Lydia Boesch and Kevin Drum.  The episode in question reportedly occurred in September 2021.  Drum was locked in a reelection fight set to go before the voters in early November 2021.

Drum ended up losing his November reelection.  The alleged plot involving the Strickland trio appeared to sabotage Drum and pave the way for recent arrival to town, Washington lobbyist and current mayor Pat Pizzella to get elected to council.  Many observers see the alleged plotting by a council majority, involving village staff and resources, as also helping to pave the way for Boesch’s eventual 2023 reelection loss.

Drum, a local businessman, decided to become a government transparency activist in the wake of all this. He filed suit, with the help of some folks at Duke Law School, alleging multiple violations of state open meetings law.  Village Hall – with the help of the Pinehurst-law-firm-that-shall-not-be-named and now-retired Superior Court Judge Jim Webb — got Drum’s complaint tossed out of court twice.

Now that Webb has retired from the court, Drum and his allies are trying again — hoping to finally get a fair, free-of-local politics day in court. An appeal filed at the state Court of Appeals is based on this question:

Here’s a summary of Drum’s argument before the appeals court:


Plaintiffs sought two rulings in their initial complaint. Under both the Uniform Declaratory Judgment statute, N.C. GEN. STAT. § 1-253, and the OML, N.C. GEN. STAT. § 143-318.16A, Plaintiffs sought a declaration that the actions of a majority of the Pinehurst Village Council (hereinafter, “the Council”) violated the OML. Under the OML, N.C. GEN. STAT. § 143-318.16, the Plaintiffs also sought an injunction against future violations. Plaintiffs did not ask the court to void, alter or in any way disturb any action taken by the Council.

On 20 September 2021, the full Pinehurst Village Council met in a closed session for a “personnel discussion.” (R pp 9–10). The meeting’s purpose was to reprimand Councilmember Boesch for perceived violations of the Village Ethics Policy. (R p 10). After the September meeting, a majority of the Village Councilmembers — Village Mayor John Strickland, Mayor Pro Tem Judy Davis and Councilmember Jane Hogeman (hereinafter, “the Majority”) — engaged in an extensive and simultaneous exchange of emails in which they concluded that Councilmember Boesch and Councilmember Drum needed to be formally censured. (R p 14). The basis for the Drum censure was that allegedly he had been disrespectful of Village residents, which, according to the Majority, violated the Village Ethics Policy. (R p 14). Through the exchange of these emails, the Majority consulted with both the Village Attorney and the Village Manager, who were copied on the emails and participated in the discussion. (R pp 14-19).

Through the emails, the Majority drafted the language of censures to be proposed and the exact language that ultimately would be used to introduce and explain the Majority’s perceived need for the censures. (R pp 14-19).

In a public meeting on 12 October 2021, the Village Attorney described what he had been asked to by “a consensus or a majority of the Village Council.” (R p 19). After the Village Attorney provided background, as planned, Village Councilmember Hogeman read the motion that had been created and approved by the Majority in their email exchanges. (R p 20).

Councilmember Boesch was stunned and reacted to the censure motion. She said, “I’ve never seen that,” and asked, “Did somebody provide that to you to read?” Councilmember Hogeman replied, “No. I worked on that.” (R p 20). “With whose help?” Councilmember Boesch asked. She continued, “I mean, you’re reading something that was prepared before this meeting. And again, these are things that are being written about and against me, and I’ve never had an opportunity to see this. This. There’s something so just uneasy about this. So you wrote that by yourself?” (R pp 20-21). At that point, Mayor Strickland said, “As far as I know yes, and Jane’s an attorney.” (R p 21).

Despite the Mayor’s misrepresentation and misdirection that Councilmember Hogeman had worked alone, it appeared to Councilmembers Boesch and Drum that there may have been some discussion among the members of the Majority prior to the 12 October 2022 meeting. If there was, they had been excluded from the discussion. Councilmember Boesch sent a question to the UNC School of Government asking about the propriety of that exclusion. Although Defendants submitted part of that email exchange to the trial court, part was missing. The portion filed with the court did not include what question had been asked or what background information had been provided. Only the response from Professor Frayda Bluestein is in the record, attached to Defendants’ amended motion to dismiss. (R p 257).

Professor Bluestein wrote that it would be “hard” for a public body to meet by email. She did not say it was impossible. (R p 257). She wrote,“if they are having a conversation spaced over a span of time, it’s not illegal,” (R p 257) but the record is devoid of what level of detail Professor Bluestein had been provided when she responded. For example, the record does not reveal whether Professor Bluestein knew that the Majority had at times exchanged emails in very short blocks of time or that the Majority had, in the words of the Village Attorney, reached a “consensus” to censure the two other councilmembers. (R p 51).

Following the October meetings, Former Council member Drum undertook to understand exactly what had taken place by email. A public records request revealed dozens of emails related to the proposed censures (R p 48–238). On 6 May 2022, Plaintiffs filed suit. (R p 3). The lawsuit sought a declaration that both the 20 September 2021 meeting and the October meetings by email violated the OML and an injunction prohibiting the Village Council from further violations. […] 

(Read Drum’s entire filing HERE.)

At the very least, this whole episode is a case study demonstrating a really rotten method for conducting the people’s business.

Village government has hired a handful of attorneys — at a huge price, we’re sure — to nitpick the whole matter out of existence.   We’re sure the price tag on all those attorneys is much higher than the price the Village and its taxpayers would have paid following a concession and a sincere promise to DO BETTER.

 You have to ask: At Village Hall, is the desire to stomp on perceived political “enemies” overruling the obligation to serve the people?

There are some that may want to curse the ground Kevin Drum walks on.  Treat all this like it’s 100 percent HIS FAULT.  Drum didn’t do this all by himself.  There are a number of denizens of Village Hall — including folks who have sat on the Village Council — who need to answer for this.

Whether or not you want to admit it, Kevin Drum is doing us ALL a favor.