NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Education is once again debating the ethics of one of its board members. Tuesday night, members made plans to hold a special meeting and potentially censure Judy Justice, based on allegations that she violated state law by disclosing a confidential personnel matter to a person not legally entitled to obtain the information.
Slated for Jan. 14, the hearing of Judy Justice comes nearly seven months after the board took a vote of no confidence against her, which had to do solely with the local board ethics policy and not a violation of the law.
There was no disciplinary action as a result of the 4-3 condemnation that took place. Similarly, a censure would not come with any punishment, other than Justice knowing her fellow members disapprove of her behavior.
On a call Wednesday, Justice said she would not step down if a censure occurred and she fully intends to run for re-election in 2022. The Democrat was first elected in 2018 to a four-year term. She suggested the potential censure is an attempt to silence her.
“I was elected by the people. I’m doing exactly what they asked me to do. I do it every day,” Justice told Port City Daily.
In her first meeting as the newly appointed board chair, Stephanie Kraybill led the motion to schedule a hearing, during which Justice will be able to defend herself against the accusations.
“It has been discovered that the integrity of our board has been called into question with some action of one of our board members, and I feel the need to address it quickly and move forward,” Kraybill said.
Kraybill indicated the issue came to light following a discussion in December about the code of ethics for members, during which the officials discussed “successes and shortcomings” of the past year. Under one subsection, the policy requires board members to “respect the confidentiality of information that is privileged under applicable law and refrain from unauthorized disclosure of matters discussed in closed session.”
North Carolina General Statute also protects personnel files from the general public.
During the hearing, the board will determine by majority vote whether to adopt a resolution censuring Justice.
Board member Stefanie Adams seconded Kraybill’s motion to schedule the hearing. It passed 5-2, with Justice and Walker opposed.
Justice questioned how it was possible to discuss the issue, which involves a confidential personnel matter, in an open session. She told Port City Daily she has explained the situation in private with the other officials –– “which is where it needs to remain,” she added.
The school board’s attorney Colin Shive explained the hearing will need to be “carefully crafted” to protect the confidential information.
“Between now and the hearing date, I imagine that you’ll be provided with the format for the hearing, and you will have an opportunity to argue to the board why you should not be censured based on the conduct alleged,” Shive told Justice during Tuesday’s meeting.
Still, Justice questioned how she’d be able to defend herself in a public setting about a confidential subject.
“To be able to come out in public, without being able to present information that is very relevant to this situation, does not make any sense,” Justice said. “That’s very one-sided, and that has to do with my rights also. I don’t want to have anybody’s rights harmed, and that’s why I said this needs to be in closed session.”
Per the closed session statute, the board is not allowed to discuss the performance of a board member behind closed doors. Anytime the body examines the behavior and actions of a member, it has to do so in a public setting:
“A public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body … except in an open meeting,” the law states.
When Justice asked for further specifications, Kraybill told her time was up, and they were moving on to the next item of business on the meeting’s agenda.
During the discussion, board member Nelson Beaulieu called a point of order, telling Justice to speak respectfully to the attorney after Justice asked Shive: “you are representing the board, remember that?” The moment highlighted the tension between the members, which has heightened over their ongoing disagreements over legal representation. In June, several board members voiced frustration with Justice for pushing the idea of ending their relationship with the current attorneys. Beaulieu said he was “disgusted.”
Earlier during Tuesday’s meeting, Beaulieu expressed annoyance with Justice yet again as she questioned the order of the agenda. “I will take this up yet again,” he said. “I mean, we’re talking about how we talk about what we talk about. This is absurd.”
Justice is often in the minority when votes are taken, as was the case this week when she voted against signing a retainer agreement with Tharrington Smith, the board’s law firm.
In June, four board members took a vote of no confidence against Justice after then-chair Stefanie Adams accused her of conduct that was out of line with board policy. Adams claimed it was inappropriate and inaccurate for Justice to call a closed-door meeting between Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust and county leaders was a violation. She also criticized Justice for consistent attempts to propose actions “without prior notice or conversation” and missing a Title IX training session, required of board members.
Pete Wildeboer, Walker and Justice dissented to the motion of no confidence. Before casting his downvote, Wildeboer suggested all members were guilty of violating policy at some point.
Justice echoed similar statements Wednesday, accusing all six members of having broken the code of ethics at some point, except possibly Walker. She called the attempted censure a diversion from poor leadership and the district’s issues, specifically, growing concern over the use of seclusion rooms in schools and staff pleading for living wages.
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“Things haven’t changed,” Justice told Port City Daily. “We are not going to be able to work together and pull together the way we need to as long as we have certain personalities and leadership that doesn’t want to focus on what’s important.”
The motion by Kraybill this week came as a surprise to many, as it was listed under the item “Policy 2120 Review” and stated board members would review and discuss the code of ethics. Ahead of June’s special meeting, during which Justice was first condemned, vague details were given about the purpose of the assembly. NHCS announced the special meeting would be “a discussion of compliance with Board Policy 2120.”
Justice’s hearing starts at 3 p.m. at the board of education center, 1805 S. 13th St.
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