When it met in closed sessions last year, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners discussed real estate purchases, public records requests, legal disputes and personnel matters.

Now, in response to a Carolina Public Press records request, the board has unsealed the minutes of most of its 2014 closed sessions.

The board discussed 24 agenda items in closed sessions last year. It released the documents last week after a review by Watauga’s county manager, Deron Geouque, and county attorney, Stacy “Four” Eggers, according to board clerk Anita Fogle.

In a recent investigation, Carolina Public Press found that WNC’s county boards held more than 300 closed sessions last year, with about 75 percent of the written accounts of those meetings still sealed from the public. Jackson County also recently passed a policy for reviewing and releasing closed meeting minutes, another result of the Carolina Public Press investigation.

Portions of the Watauga County commission meeting minutes remain sealed, but it is clear from the 18 pages released by the board that summaries of most of its backroom conversations held last year are now open for public inspection. (See the minutes, along with closed session accounts from other WNC counties, below.)

Property deals and disputes

In North Carolina, governmental boards can go into closed sessions, where the public is excluded, to discuss nine specific topics, one of which is real estate deals and negotiations.

In Watauga’s closed sessions last year, several such matters were aired. One concerned a property line dispute between the county and Mountain Crossings Inc. over where to draw the line on a tract on High School Drive.

The county and the company went back and forth before forging a settlement after a threatened county lawsuit, the records show. The company agreed to pay the county $7,500.

Related meetings dealt with tax-related foreclosures and attempts to buy land for a new county medics base.

Legal wrangling

Fifteen of the board’s closed sessions in 2014 were held to preserve attorney/client privilege.

A few of those dealt with the county’s plan to fine a local company, Arbor Care Tree Service, about $3,000 for sign ordinance violations.

According to the minutes, the board directed county attorney Eggers to launch a lawsuit against the company’s owner to both obtain the penalty fees and seek an injunction barring further violations of the ordinance.

Soon after the lawsuit was filed, “the owner filed for bankruptcy,” the minutes say.

“The bankruptcy attorney directed the owner to take down the sign, which has since been removed. Due to the bankruptcy filing it was highly unlikely and cost prohibitive to attempt to collect the amount of fines which had accrued to the point the sign was removed.”

In another move, the board approved allocating funds to help the county’s Department of Social Services deal with a sudden backlog of Medicaid reporting requirements.

Public records requests

Part of what is revealed in the release is the board’s discussions of public records requests.

In March 2014, for example, the county attorney briefed the board on an ACLU request for records about a “complaint received by the Board of Education regarding a book read by a sophomore English class,” the minutes say.

“The county attorney requested any documents as such should be forwarded to him to compile and to answer the request,” according to the minutes.

Another closed session, on Nov. 18, 2014, delved into a public records dispute between Watauga County Fire Marshal Steve Sudderth and the town of Boone.

The minutes say:

“County Attorney Eggers stated that Watauga County Fire Marshal, Steve Sudderth, had made a public records request to the Town of Boone which had not been fulfilled. On behalf of the Fire Marshal, the County Attorney wrote to the Town for the production of the documents. In response to the letter, the County Attorney was contacted by the new Town of Boone Manager who responded by the same afternoon with several documents meeting the request. The previous Town Manager had indicated that there were no documents related to the request.”

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Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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