Tim Lea throws a tantrum, and The Pilot dutifully takes dictation

If you read The Pilot, you would think that county commissioner Tim Lea was little more than a crusading, good-government, of-the-people, by-the-people kind of guy.    He regularly throws tantrums at meetings — waving his arms demonstratively and rolling his eyes while others are talking.  He likes to insinuate that his colleagues on the board are regularly engaged in political corruption and the wasting of taxpayer money.  Funny thing is — most of the stuff Tim complains about are things he has voted for, or spoken approvingly of, in prior meetings.

Regular Timmy-watchers attribute Lea’s behavior to an oversized ego that is not being fed as often as Tim would like it to be.

 Tim was recently on the soapbox ranting about Bojangles and the open meetings law, and our Nobel Prize-winning local newspaper was there fawning, ready to transcribe every word:

A Bojangles’ restaurant may be coming to Carthage, and Moore County Commissioner Tim Lea wants everyone to know about it. Not, however, for the reasons one might think.

While in closed session during Tuesday’s regular board meeting, county commissioners agreed to authorize County Manager Cary McSwain to inform the Bojangles’ corporation that the county had an interest in selling 1.3 acres, contingent upon a study that is currently under way.

But when the proposal was read in open session without naming the potential buyer or the location, Lea named three points that he said needed to be included in the wording.

“The sentence should read ‘potential interest’ rather than just the word ‘interest’ in the property, and the interested party should be identified as Bojangles’,” Lea said.

“You said it was in Carriage Oaks, but the board should also let the precise location of the property be known, which is between Hardee’s, the war memorial and DSS. I’d like to see those three things in the motion so there’s no question about or need for clarification about what we’re doing here.”

Commissioner Nick Picerno questioned the time limitation stated for the completion of the space-needs allocation study. “The current motion says something about 30 days on the study. Does that tie us into 30 days? Let’s strike that and say it is contingent upon completion of the report.”

Lea asked that those four parts be included in the motion “since that was what was discussed in closed session.”

Commissioner Jimmy Melton said that while he didn’t have a problem with the alterations, he felt that adding the additional wording was “unnecessary.”

“What the county manager has read pretty well states everything as it is,” he said. “I think we can go with what the county manager said.”

Picerno said he thought the word “potentially” had to be included, “because we’re potentially looking at the sale. I like that piece of it, but the rest I can take or leave.”

Commissioners’ Chairman Larry Caddell asked Melton if he wanted to make a motion to retain the original language, which did not include the additional four parts. Melton did, but the motion didn’t receive any support.

“Does anyone have another motion?” Caddell asked. Lea said he felt that “total clarification” was important. “Mr. Chairman, I would ask and move that the four points made become part of the motion and that we approve it.”

Picerno seconded the motion containing the suggested changes, which was unanimously passed by the board. Lea explained his position after the meeting.

“Whenever the county is in the process of buying property, we can do that in closed session, but whenever we’re in the process of selling the county taxpayers’ assets, that is supposed to be done in open session,” Lea said.

“In my opinion, this board violated the open meetings law by discussing the sale of a particular piece of property in closed session, against the advice of the county attorney. According to the open meeting law, this type of procedure has to be done in open session. It’s done that way so that we have an opportunity to maximize the return on your assets and then put those monies in the general fund for future needs of the county, therefore hopefully keeping your tax rate low.”

“Which is why we’ve asked for a competitive bid process,” McSwain said.

County Attorney Misty Leland said she could not comment on whether or not the issue was discussed in closed session.

Lea also took issue with what he called the “desecration” of the war memorial should a fast food restaurant be placed nearby. “This is not about Bojangles’. This is about respect for the veterans whose names are on the monument and who died in the service of their country,” Lea said. “I want the veterans of this county to know that there could potentially be trash from a fast food restaurant left around the area of the monument if this goes through. Is this the kind of image we want displayed?”

Well — Since Tim brought it up, let’s look at the open meetings law.  I consulted the Citizens Media Law Project web site, which includes a section on the North Carolina open meetings law:

The general rule is that all official meetings of public bodies must be open to the public. If a public body wants to hold a closed or “executive” session, it must identify a specific statutory exemption. Under the North Carolina Open Meetings Law, a public body may hold a closed session when it is dealing with one of nine subject-area exemptions found in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(a). A public body may close a session for the following nine purposes:

  • to prevent the disclosure of information that is privileged or confidential under state or federal law;
  • to prevent the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize, or similar award;
  • 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;
  • to discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area served by the public body, including agreement on a tentative list of economic development incentives that may be offered by the public body in negotiations;
  • to establish, or to instruct the public body’s staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange, or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract;
  • to consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee, or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee;
  • to plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct;
  • to formulate plans by a local board of education relating to emergency response to incidents of school violence; and
  • to discuss and take action regarding plans to protect public safety as it relates to existing or potential terrorist activity and to receive briefings by staff members, legal counsel, or law enforcement or emergency service officials concerning actions taken or to be taken to respond to such activity.

The exemptions make it permissible for a public body to close a portion of a meeting; they do not require the public body to do so. To close a session, a public body must identify the exemption justifying closure and vote during a open meeting to hold a closed session. When voting, the public body must refer to the specific statutory exemption relied on to close the meeting. If the public body indicates that it will discuss confidential information, it must identify the law that makes the information in question confidential. If it indicates that it will discuss pending litigation, it must identify the parties to the litigation.

The minutes of closed sessions must give a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what took place. A public body may withhold the minutes if public inspection would frustrate the purpose of the closed session. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.10(e). When the reason for holding a closed session is no longer valid, a public body must make these minutes available to the public.

Judging by the details offered in The Pilot’s story, it appears this instance met bullet points 3,4, and 5.   (Lea MAY have had a point if  the board did not identify which exemption it was relying on to go into executive session.)

Bojangles is not an industry — but its pursuit of property in Carthage is STILL economic development.   If you  are Bojangles and you announce your interest in a piece of property, one of your competitors — say, Hardee’s — could swoop in and outbid you out of spite.  It sounds like the developer for Bojangles approached the county, as a result of possible interest in the property.  It’s likely that an option was put forth, or some kind of offer may have been laid on the table for the county to consider.   The manager and the attorney would have to be consulted.  It doesn’t appear — as Tim and his legion of  acolytes on The Pilot message boards insinuate — that the commissioners are dumping off county property to a crony.

If this is a piece of property the county has no use for, I would rather it be sold post-haste to someone intending to put something there that generates jobs and tax revenue.

Antics like this on the part of Lea could harm recruitment work by Partners in Progress.  Most private businesses like to keep their expansion plans secret until the last minute.  You could have businesses thinking twice about coming to Moore County if there is a chance that Tim will blab their plans to The Pilot in an open meeting.