BELVILLE — With the exception of its mayor, Belville hasn’t revealed how elected officials voted in a decision this week to appeal the H2GO legal case. And according to state local government law, it isn’t legally obligated to.
On Monday, in an informal 3-2 vote that took place in closed session, Belville Commissioners and Mayor Mike Allen chose to direct attorneys to file an appeal in the long-fought Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO case.
One week earlier, Belville was handed a legal defeat. After accepting all of H2GO’s approximately $60 million in assets last December, a judge assigned by the state’s Chief Justice ruled the move was illegal.
Judge Charles Henry’s order also ruled actions and inactions taken by Belville’s Commissioners at the time and H2GO’s three outgoing commissioners violated state ethics law in their efforts to accomplish the contested transfer. Belville has already spent over a half-million dollars defending itself on the case to date.
Decision to appeal
The town announced its decision via a press release which described the action as a 3-2 vote and stated that Mayor Mike Allen tipped a 2-2 vote in favor of the appeal.
On Monday, Port City Daily asked Mike McGill, Belville’s spokesperson, which two Commissioners voted against the appeal. McGill referred inquiries to Belville’s administrator. In response to a public record request for a breakdown of the vote, Athina Williams, Belville’s administrator, wrote in an email Tuesday that no formal vote was taken.
“The Board of Commissioners gave instructions to its legal counsel in closed session regarding a pending legal matter,” Williams wrote in the email. Port City Daily responded with follow-up questions, which the town has not formally responded to.
Not required to disclose
Public bodies (i.e. municipal and county boards) are permitted, per North Carolina General Statute § 143-318.11(3), to take action on legal matters in closed session meetings shielded from the public. According to the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government, giving litigation instruction to legal counsel are included in the few circumstances when public bodies may take a vote in closed session.
So, information Belville released following the vote was information the public would not generally be privy to. If not for the town’s release, the public would have had to wait for a legal filing to show up in the ever-growing H2GO case docket to realize the town appealed Judge Henry’s April 22 order.
The town’s disclosure revealed the board was split on that decision. This means when voters head to the ballot box in November, they now won’t know which Commissioners supported the move and which were opposed to it.
However, board members are not barred from voicing what happened: “So long as confidential information is not involved, board members are free to exercise their First Amendment rights to communicate about matters that are discussed in closed session,” according to the School of Government.
When reached by phone Thursday, Commissioners Noreen Slattery, Morgan Mehler, and Kent Goodman declined to share how they informally voted Monday. Commissioner David Long did not immediately respond to the same inquiry.
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