The current board of directors of the Southeastern Economic Development Corp. is scheduled to discuss Wednesday, for the first time in public, a severance package agreed for its outgoing president, Carolyn Y. Smith, according to the agenda for the meeting.
The severance package is the subject of a lawsuit brought by a local activist, who claims that Smith’s $100,350 severance is illegal because the board discussed and voted on it in private. That’s a violation of the state’s open meetings law, the activist, Ian Trowbridge, claimed in a lawsuit filed last week.
Wednesday’s board meeting is likely the last meeting of the current board, as four board members are scheduled to be replaced at the Sept. 2 City Council meeting. During the meeting, the board is scheduled discuss whether or not to void its previous agreement with Smith and whether to approve a new termination agreement.
Attorney Cory J. Briggs, who is representing Trowbridge, told me he wants SEDC to discuss and vote on the payment in an open session of the board so that the public can know what the payment is based on and how it was decided.
According to the meeting agenda, immediately before the board discusses the Briggs lawsuit, it will also meet in closed session to discuss a “personnel” matter regarding the president. That discussion is docketed as “Public Employee Performance Evaluation/Discipline/Dismissal/Release.”
That’s very similar wording to the closed session item that was docketed on the July 23 meeting agenda. It was during discussion of that item that the SEDC board made the vote on Smith’s severance that is being challenged by the lawsuit.
Briggs argued that if the board uses Wednesday’s closed session to discuss the payment and then merely announces its decision in open session, that’s still illegal, because the Brown Act specifically bars discussion of termination payments in a closed meeting.
A call and e-mail for comment to SEDC’s corporate counsel, Regina Petty, were not returned.
Of course, the closed session discussion is, well, closed, so there’s no way of telling what the board discusses prior to coming back out into open session. But open meetings expert Terry Francke told me last week that if there’s any discussion of the severance package at all in the closed session, then the board’s breaking the law.