And the winner is . . . Pamlico Board of Commissioners!

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All but 10 minutes of Monday night meeting off limits to public

News Opinion

BAYBORO — You’re John Q. Public. You pay your taxes. In the last local election, you voted for thus-and-so, who seems like a really nice person. You’ve considered attending a County Commission meeting — usually held on the first and third Monday evenings of each month in a conference room on the second floor of the Courthouse. Your goal is to learn a bit about what is going on, and what the seven elected officials are contemplating these days.


The problem is rampant across the nation, but Pamlico County seems to be doing more than its share to maintain the trend. Debate, deliberations, and even compromises are taking place, of course, but usually any really meaningful dialogues on important issues are being conducted behind closed doors.


Elected boards are supposed to conduct their business in so-called ‘Open Meetings’ where the public is welcome. But, glaring exemptions exist in state law. Exemptions outlined in the law are referred to as Permitted Purposes:

“It is the policy of this State that closed sessions shall be held only when required to permit a public body to act in the public interest,” reads the statute.

Then the law goes on to cite ten broad, and far-reaching categories when closed sessions are for a ‘Permitted Purpose.’
The intent of these exemptions seems noble and above board — but don’t be naive!

That part of the law allowing exemptions to open meetings is really fuzzy about who gets to decide if a professed topic can properly be labeled as a ‘Permitted Purpose’ — and thereby eligible for a closed session. As a practical matter, the most abused exemption comes when elected officials want “to consult with an attorney employed or retained by the public body . . . ”

And, when an attorney sits in on EVERY meeting of the Pamlico County Board of Commissioners, guess what? Closed sessions are really easy to pull off!

Want to buy a piece of property, paid for by the taxpayer dollars? Go into closed session.

Want to discuss economic development? Go into closed session.

Want to consider the qualifications of a possible new employee? Go into closed session.

And the list goes on, and on.

Monday night, the board went into closed session apparently to consider the implications of a drastic change to county governance, in which the existing all volunteer, appointed Board of Health would be disbanded, with supervision of the Health Department transferred, presumably, to the County Commissioners.

Some think the move is intended to minimize the clout of new Health Director, Scott Lenhart, on the job just 16 months. If the Board of Health were to be disbanded, Lenhart would then report to County Manager Tim Buck, and not to an independent appointed board.

Forgive me. I wish I knew more. Along with 20 or so other Pamlico County citizens, I was standing outside the conference room doors and we were all oblivious as to what our elected officials were discussing.

This is a big time issue affecting hundred, if not thousands, of county residents!!??

Don’t think for a second that any explanation was forthcoming after the closed session concluded. Instead each of the Commissioners briefly spouted vague platitudes and cryptic comments about why they intended to vote yea or nay on the proposal.

To his credit, Commission Chairman Ed Riggs Jr. made a quick, but feeble, effort to describe the secret machinations his colleagues:

“We considered this action a year and a half ago,” said Riggs. “If we do this, nothing would change because our (Health Department) staffers are agents of the State, and we can’t overrule the State. This is the wrong time for the wrong reasons.”

But even then, most of the public attendees were clueless about the pros and cons of the contentious issue.

For the record, the vote did occur during a brief few moments when members of the public were in the same room with their elected officials. The board split 4 to 3, defeating a Commissioner Paul Delamar motion to do away with the appointed Board of Health.
Baskervill and Ollision joined Delamar in seeking to axe the Board of Health. Riggs, Holton, Prescott, and Bohmert voted to stick with the status quo.