Settlement ends feud over records

Published 5:18 pm Tuesday, August 7, 2007

By Staff
Parties ordered to provide items by end of Monday
News Editor
The yearlong public-records dispute among Belhaven officials ended Monday with three words: “Thank you all.”
That’s what Superior Court Judge Alma Hinton said after Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal, Town Manager Tim Johnson and four of the town’s five council members agreed to a consent order under which all parties will get the e-mails and correspondence they seek. Per an amendment made in Beaufort County Superior Court that morning, all the materials had to be given to the litigants by 5 p.m. Monday.
The agreement will be binding as long as O’Neal and Johnson “occupy the positions” as Belhaven officials. Under the agreement, the town will also pay O’Neal $2,500 in attorney fees.
The “time certain” amendment came when O’Neal’s attorney, Frank Johnston, told the court the mayor didn’t yet have what the agreement promised him.
His statement prompted Hinton to ask how they were sent. Town Attorney Keith Mason responded that they were sent via e-mail. Attorney Rudy Ashton, who is also representing the town in this matter, said the original agreement could be modified to include “a time certain” by which the parties must have the disputed materials.
Hinton ruled “there must be either an in-hand copy or an electronic copy” of each item, and that if e-mailing them was not an option, then parties were to “make a hard copy and have it physically delivered by 5 o’clock Monday.”
Mason said the e-mail address O’Neal furnished Friday was different from the one he offered in court Monday. Ashton added, “That was probably an honest mistake.”
As he waited outside the courtroom for the case to be heard, O’Neal said the matter never should have gone as far as the Beaufort County Courthouse.
After a special meeting of the Town Council on Friday, Johnson said O’Neal “sends out these correspondences, and we find out about them six months later.”
O’Neal said it’s “pure politics” that keeps both him and Councilman Steve Carawan “in the dark.” Carawan is the only council member who was not named in the lawsuit.
Before the case was heard, Mason said he and O’Neal agree on one thing. “You have to look beyond the back-and-forth and look at the facts here,” Mason said.
When the case was over, Johnson said he didn’t have time to talk about it.