Cory Briggs, a local attorney who filed a lawsuit last week against the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., has written a letter to the agency’s corporate counsel, Regina Petty, asking her to ensure that the closed session of SEDC’s board meeting tomorrow is recorded.
Briggs’ letter says his client, activist Ian Trowbridge, wants the meeting recorded because the closed session discussion could become evidence in his lawsuit against the agency. That lawsuit alleges that SEDC’s board violated state open meetings law, known as the Brown Act, when it voted in closed session last month to pay outgoing SEDC President Carolyn Y. Smith a $100,350 severance payment.
The Brown Act forbids the board from discussing a termination payment in private, Trowbridge claims in his lawsuit. Terry Francke, an expert on open meetings law, agreed with Briggs’ assertion and said the Brown Act specifically bars a public body from such discussion.
SEDC has scheduled the lawsuit for discussion at its board meeting tomorrow. According to the meeting agenda, the board will discuss Trowbridge’s lawsuit in open session and will consider motions to nullify its previous termination agreement with Smith and also to approve a termination agreement for her.
If the payment is discussed and voted on in open session, it could satisfy the Brown Act complaints. So Smith’s $100,350 parachute, that’s currently being challenged under state law, could be approved and legitimized at tomorrow’s meeting.
But the open session discussion is preceded by a closed session item that’s listed on the meeting agenda as “Public Employee Performance Evaluation/Discipline/Dismissal/Release.”
Briggs is concerned that the board will use that closed session to discuss Smith’s severance package which, he claims, would be another violation of the Brown Act. That’s why he wants the session recorded.
Briggs’ letter reads:
The need for a neutral, objective record of tomorrow’s closed-session discussions should be obvious at this point. The discussions are likely to be evidence in the above-referenced matter and may become evidence in other proceedings. The best protection for my client, your client, and especially the public is for there to be a clear record of what is discussed — one that doesn’t rely on the memories or truthfulness of persons accused of breaking the law — in the event that the discussions become relevant at a later date.
[N]ot preserving a contemporaneous record of the discussions could constitute the spoliation of evidence and subject your client (and possibly even you) to sanctions.
Petty did not return a call for comment.