Commissioner urges county to settle lawsuit

Published 8:54 pm Thursday, March 1, 2018

A lawsuit against the county is costing the county too much money, according to one Beaufort County commissioner.

At February’s regular meeting of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Hood Richardson encouraged the Board and county personnel to settle a lawsuit filed by the watchdog group Citizens for a Better Government of Beaufort County. The group has accused county commissioners of violating North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law four times in 2015 by discussing in closed sessions issues that should have taken place in public, according to a press release issued when the lawsuit was filed.

The case is still in discovery phase, according to county Manager Brian Alligood, but Richardson wants the lawsuit settled he said, because there are only one of two outcomes: the county did not violate Open Meetings Law and would likely spend the $50,000 allocated to defend itself against the lawsuit; or the county is guilty of violating the law and will be forced to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

“The county has already appropriated $50,000 to defend a lawsuit that the worst thing that can happen to us is we have to pay the opposing party’s attorney bill if we lose,” Richardson said. “We need to figure out a way to get out of this.”

Richardson said the law is written to encourage members of the public to step up and uncover corruption — thus the outcome that the government entity would be required to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees if found in the wrong — and that all like cases are settled the same way.

“From the standpoint of managing the county’s money, I have advocated over and over again: cut your losses. You know how the suit is going to end,” Richardson said.

County Attorney David Francisco said he is acting on the will of the board, which has told him no law was violated during closed sessions that year.

“All the defendants, the named commissioners, are saying that’s not so,” Francisco said. “I’ll let you speak for whether or not there’s something we can do to solve this to your satisfaction.”

Commissioners have stated that they will accept a voluntary dismissal from Citizens for a Better Government of Beaufort County.

A court date has not yet been set.