Mayor given permission to view billing

Published 6:50 pm Tuesday, May 23, 2017

BELHAVEN — Mayor Adam O’Neal received the OK Monday night to view residents’ utility billing information.

At Monday night’s meeting, the Belhaven Board of Aldermen passed a motion to allow O’Neal access to records of this type. Alderman Steve Carawan made the motion, and Alderman Yvonne DeRuiz seconded it.

Carawan said he believes O’Neal should be privy to the documents for which the public holds him accountable, citing the Town’s problems with unpaid utility bills.

“I’ve never had to ask for this before. It’s always just been done,” O’Neal said of providing the documents.

The issue of whether O’Neal could view billing records stems from a decision by Belhaven Manager Woody Jarvis to allow Spoon River Artworks and Market to contract with another trash company besides David’s Trash Service.

At a previous Board of Aldermen meeting, Jarvis explained that David’s Trash did not pick up Spoon River’s trash for days because of the large amount, and the restaurant’s owners were concerned about health hazards and needing more trash space.

David’s Trash cannot provide a larger trash container without a concrete pad to support it, and Spoon River is waiting for its grant-funded expansion project to begin, and the subsequent construction, before pouring the concrete.

“I asked the finance officer for a copy of Spoon River’s bill to see if we were still charging for trash, or had we let Woody’s friend get off with another garbage company and not pay the town anything, which deprives the town revenue, had that happened? The finance officer did not produce the bills,” O’Neal said at a May 8 meeting.

O’Neal said Finance Director Kelly Brady told him he could be guilty of a misdemeanor if the billing records were provided.

To sort out the issue, town officials first consulted the advice of Sharon Edmundson, director of the Fiscal Management Section at the N.C. Department of State Treasurer.

Edmundson first told O’Neal he had a right to see documents that any other citizen had a right to view, but she advised that she was not an attorney. Edmundson then sought the advice of attorney Kara Millonzi.

In a May 9 email, Millonzi wrote: “Utility billing information (including the information you describe below) is not a public record. That means that no one has a right to view or have a copy of that information. Most utility billing information, however, is not confidential. A local government may choose to make it public or not. It must do so on a uniform basis, though. To avoid any legal issues, I advise local governments to have the board adopt a policy setting out the circumstances under which the unit will make such info available to the public.”

Frayda Bluestein, with the UNC School of Government, agreed with Millonzi, stating “access to these records is controlled by the body.”

Monday night’s decision put a set policy in place for O’Neal and any subsequent mayors of Belhaven to be able to view utility billing information.