At tonight’s board meeting, the Southeastern Economic Development Corp’s board of directors will consider anew whether to approve a $100,350 severance payment to its ousted former president, Carolyn Y. Smith.
Smith was awarded the payment by the agency’s former board members, several of whom have since been replaced, when she was ousted in the wake of a scandal over more than $1 million in secret bonuses that she approved for herself and other SEDC staffers.
But in the days after the payment was announced a local activist, Ian Trowbridge, took aimat the severance package in a lawsuit, arguing that because the payment was discussed and voted on in a closed session of SEDC’s board meeting, the board had violated the state’s open meetings law, known as the Brown Act.
The SEDC board attempted to “cure” its alleged violation of the Brown Act back in September, when it voted in open session to retroactively approve the payment to Smith. The board’s intention at the time was to effectively sidestep the allegation made in Trowbridge’s lawsuit by re-approving the termination payment in an open session meeting.
But the board’s open session vote last September had immediately followed a closed session of the board meeting, and Trowbridge’s attorney, Cory Briggs argued that the board had merely had a discussion of the payment in closed session, then come out into its open session to vote on the matter. That’s against the spirit of the Brown Act, Briggs argued, which forbids any discussion of severance payments in closed session meetings.
Superior Court Judge Jay Bloom agreed with Briggs and last November issued a preliminary injunction against the agency ordering it not to pay Smith.
Here’s what Bloom said at the time:
The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.
In this case, the initial meeting and the attempts at curing the procedural defects do not meet the spirit of the law. Therefore, the motion to dismiss is denied.
According to the agenda for tonight’s meeting, Smith’s severance payment will be discussed in open session, before there has been any closed session discussion.
Briggs said he will have to wait and see what is said in the meeting and whether the meeting’s agenda properly reflects that discussion, before he decides whether to continue his action against the agency.
“Until I know what action they take and what discussion they have, we won’t know whether the meeting was properly agendized,” Briggs said. “But if they have properly agendized it, and take action one way or another in open session, they will have done what we asked them to do — albeit half a year and several days in court later.”