“Exactly, sweetheart”: Hoke County lawyers up in News-Journal lawsuit

“Exactly, sweetheart”: Hoke County lawyers up in News-Journal lawsuit

[Photo: Lisa Maynor is ejected from the meeting after she and another person spoke up. Members of the public were not allowed to speak or ask questions at the called meeting. (Photo by Catharin Shepard)]

By Catharin Shepard • Editor • Hoke County Commissioners hired a lawyer Tuesday to represent the county in the News-Journal’s public records lawsuit, and the county attorney claimed the county would respond to the newspaper’s records requests “in a timely manner.”

One woman was ejected from the meeting before the board went into closed session, and three Hoke County Sheriff’s deputies in “Task Force” vests stood guard outside the commissioners’ room during the closed session. About 40 people showed up to the meeting.

The board voted unanimously to hire attorney Jonathan Charleston of the Charleston Group of Fayetteville to represent Hoke County government in the lawsuit.

“I move that the Hoke County Board of Commissioners retain attorney Jonathan Charleston of the Charleston Group to represent us in the matter of Brown Publishing LLC et al vs. Hoke County Government,“ Commission Vice Chairman Harry Southerland said in the motion. The motion was seconded and passed unanimously.

Then, the board called on County Attorney Grady Hunt regarding the public records requests.

“Mr. Attorney Hunt, tell us what we discussed a little bit,” Commission Chairman James Leach said.

“We’ve had public records requests. I’ve been provided information to respond and we will respond in a timely manner to the request,” the county attorney said.

Leach said the attorney would “fulfill” the requests, “that is his job to do, we have those and that information.”

Under North Carolina’s public records law, it is the “custodian” of the public records’ responsibility to respond to public records requests, according to North Carolina General Statute 162.

The News-Journal began asking a county finance officer for the public records in September 2023. Email requests were also sent to the county manager beginning in February 2024. The requests went ignored, until the News-Journal filed a lawsuit last week in Hoke County Superior Court.

Presumably, Hoke County taxpayers’ money will be paying for the Charleston Group to represent the county in the public records lawsuit.

Charleston and another attorney at the Charleston Group previously donated $1,000 each to Commission Chairman James Leach’s election campaign, according to 2016 campaign finance records.

The county hired the Charleston Group in 2017 when facing a State Bureau of Investigation probe over suspected time card fraud, which ended with one former county employee and one former sheriff’s deputy facing charges. The Charleston Group has also done legal work for the Hoke County Department of Social Services.

Last year two members of the Hoke County Board of Education, including then-Chair Angela Southerland – the sister of Commission Vice Chairman Harry Southerland – supported hiring the Charleston Group as the school district’s new attorney, after learning that District Attorney Mike Hardin had obtained an order to compel records from the district regarding school board member bonuses. The school board ultimately hired the Poyner Spruill law firm.

The Hoke County Board of Commissioners chairman had a sheriff’s office deputy eject a woman from the meeting when she spoke up from the audience. First, another member of the audience spoke up to ask if members of the public would be allowed to speak.

“You’re not able to speak at all. It’s not about citizens getting a chance to speak today. We’ve come to set the record straight, we’ve come to set the record straight. I’m going to have to ask you to leave if you don’t hush. We’ve come to set the record straight,” Leach said.

A woman in the audience spoke up to say, “We are setting the record straight.” When the woman spoke up, Leach said, “Exactly, sweetheart. If you understood the facts, you would understand Hoke County, but you don’t. So for that reason –”

When the woman responded to that “I’m from Hoke County,” Leach said, “Bring the sheriff in, bring the sheriff in, we got to take you out.”

Commission Vice Chairman Harry Southerland said, “Bring the sheriff in, remove her now. Who else wants to go? Before we get started, who else wants to go? Take her right now.”

A deputy approached the woman, who was sitting in the audience. She stood and walked out, telling the deputy not to touch her. The woman identified herself to the News-Journal as Lisa Maynor.

“We’re not going to go there and do that. You say you want the truth, we’ve come here to talk about it,” Leach said after she was ejected from the meeting. She was allowed to return just before the board went into closed session to consult with the attorney.

The board went into closed session for about 20 minutes before returning to open session and taking the vote to hire Charleston. After the closed session, Leach offered other comments.

“We’re always glad when you come to our meeting, we always welcome you to our meeting, because it’s your county, your dollars, we think you really need to know what’s going on,” Leach said. “Again, welcome, we’re glad you stayed, we’re glad you’re here, we’re glad you can actually hear the facts of what it is the board might say or might do. So thank you for waiting, thank you for not going, and we ask that you help us share the good information after we make our decision, you can help us do that.”

During the first part of the meeting, Leach praised county staff and the county’s 80 percent general fund balance.

“The truth crushed to earth will rise again, so welcome to Hoke County. And certainly this morning let me start off by thanking our staff for the great job they’ve done for this county. Certainly with an 80 percent fund balance, you can’t beat it in the state of North Carolina,” he said. “Second part of it. Our staff has done well, a very good job and we thank them for it this morning for the job they’ve done for Hoke County. For that reason they have kept us with a low tax rate, and it’s still low, and we don’t intend to raise it in this budget season, because of the work they’ve done and the work they’ve done in the past by saving this county millions. Not thousands, millions. So county manager and your staff certainly I want to be the first to say thank you to you and your staff for a job that has been well done.”

Leach also thanked the state of North Carolina for the grant funds used to build local public building projects, and called his fellow commissioners “honest.”

“If you do good, folks don’t like it, if you do bad, they don’t like it, but I’m glad this morning you’ve got a board up here that works good, that do good, an honest board, they don’t mind doing what’s right for all the citizens of Hoke County,” he said.

Leach said the county board had “come to set the facts and the record straight,” but did not specify what facts or records he meant.

The chairman also spoke about the county buying a new vehicle for Hoke County Manager Letitia Edens.

“I think every female in this county ought to stand up against what’s went on when the manager has saved you millions and you purchase her a better vehicle to ride in. She deserves the same thing as any male manager. Every female in this state of North Carolina ought to be upset with that. Why not? She did well, she need it, she earned it, it has not changed or raised your tax rate not one penny,” Leach said.

The News-Journal’s public records lawsuit did not mention or ask for records concerning the fund balance, tax rate, county staff performance, or the county manager’s new vehicle.

The lawsuit stated the newspaper has sought records concerning “1) public building construction projects; 2) paying the stipends, travel expenses, and any other monies to Hoke County Board of Commissioners members; 3) purchasing or constructing electronic and static billboards and taking in revenue from selling advertising space on the billboards; 4) installing, and removing bus stops in Hoke County.”

Specifically, the News-Journal asked for:

1. Documents/invoices/purchase orders showing the money spent on designing and building the James A. Leach Aquatic and Recreation Center, including site packages, and all change orders.

2. Documents showing all monies given to the Hoke County Board of Commissioners members from January 1, 2019 to January 1, 2024 to include their stipend, travel, and anything else.

3. Documents showing all income/payments to the county from billboards owned by the county, from January 1, 2020 to March 5, 2024, to include who made the payments.

4. Documents/invoices/purchase orders for construction of digital or traditional billboards, by the county.

5. Documents/invoices/purchase orders showing the money spent on designing and building the HATS facility on CC Steele Road, including grant award letters, site packages, and all change orders, and contracts for the work.

6. Documents/invoices/purchase orders showing the money spent on purchasing, installing, uninstalling, moving the HATS bus stops, and contracts for the work.

The News-Journal filed the suit under North Carolina’s public records law.

“The North Carolina Public Records Law, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1(b), states that all “public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government . . . are the property of the people,” and as such, “the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information for free or at a minimal cost.” The Public Records Law, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-6(a), provides that “[e]very custodian of public records shall permit any record in the custodian’s custody to be inspected and examined at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision by any person…” the law states.

A copy of the lawsuit document is available below.

Should the News-Journal obtain public records from its requests to the county, those records will also be shared with the public on the newspaper’s website.

Citizens who want to address the commissioners can do so by attending the first meeting of the month, held the first Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Pratt Building on Main Street in Raeford. Citizens must come early and sign up to speak during the public comment period of the meeting. They are limited to three minutes and may speak every three months. The next meeting is Monday, May 6 at 7 p.m.

The county livestreamed the meeting, which is available here: https://hoke.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=1 NEWS-JOURNAL-LAWSUIT-DOCUMENT Exhibit-A

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