Gibsonville’s board of aldermen this week interviewed its only candidate for town attorney during a closed meeting, an action that drew criticism from Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr.
Prior to Monday’s meeting, Boney emailed letters to the board members, staff, and interim town attorney Keith Whited stating that the plans to hold a closed session to interview anyone for the town’s contract position as an attorney was in violation of a state statute which prohibits a governing board from discussing a current or prospective contracted employee behind closed doors.
The position that the sole applicant, Robert Giles, was interviewed for that night, Boney explained, would be contracted, with the Graham-based attorney aiming to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Doug Hoy, whom the town contracted with for over 30 years; Hoy also worked in a private practice.
“Contract workers are not subject to being considered,” Boney asserted, referring to the terms of the statute, which were revised in 1994 to delete contracted employees from items allowed under closed session discussion. “Their hiring, their assessments, their firing is not the topic for a closed meeting.”
“The precedents are clear on that from the state, and I would encourage the board to do that in an open session,” he added.
The town’s mayor, Lenny Williams, and mayor pro tem, Mark Shepherd, offered their own arguments for holding the interview in private, with Williams saying that no attorney would be hired that night.
Williams’ words prompted the publisher to emphasize his point that the interview should be held publicly due to what he perceived as strong public interest in the board’s upcoming discussion with Giles. Additionally, he suggested, the public should be allowed to evaluate the candidate as the board members would.
For his part, Shepherd said that, in his opinion, the future attorney wouldn’t be working for the public, but for the board. The assertion prompted Boney to point out that the attorney would be paid using taxpayer dollars.
Shepherd also assured that the decision to hire a new attorney would be made in an open session, though the publisher further requested that the night’s consideration of Giles also be held publicly. Regardless, Boney urged that the board have the interview recorded in case the session went before a judge for review on its legality.
The town’s interim attorney, Keith Whited, also opposed Boney’s suggestion, saying that, in his opinion, the publisher “misapplie[d] the statute.” Rather, Whited said he considered a town attorney a “public official,” which would allow for a closed session discussion. The town attorney would be considered a public official, he added, because state statute requires municipalities to have an attorney.
“When a job is mandated in the general statutes — like the governor, like the attorney general — they are a public official,” Whited said. “It’s my opinion that you’re totally entitled to examine Mr. Giles or any other candidate for a public office in closed session.”
Boney went on to argue that the statute protects closed sessions for a public employee or official, of which he considered the candidate neither.
Following alderman Ken Pleasants’ assurance that he wasn’t “trying to hide anything,” Boney asked why the meeting couldn’t then be held publicly.
“It’s also the practical matter that if there’s nothing that’s sensitive, why not let everybody hear it?” he asked. “Why not let everybody decide whether the candidate is a good candidate, is a person who should be the next town attorney.”
A similar question had been posed by alderman Yvonne Maizland earlier that morning, according to email correspondence released to the newspaper in response to a public records request on Wednesday by the town manager.
“Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to resolve a dispute in favor of the public and transparency?” she asked, referring to comments that she’d received from residents who questioned the need for a closed session. “What do we have to hide from the community?”
After seeing no reply to Maizland’s inquiry, the newspaper reached out to the alderman but didn’t get a response by press time Wednesday.
Ultimately, the board opted to go forward with the closed session interview, which lasted for about 10 minutes. Upon coming out of the session, Shepherd said that no decision had been made and no action taken.
Giles only one of 15 to respond to town’s inquiry
In a phone interview with town manager Ben Baxley on Wednesday, the newspaper learned that Giles had been the only candidate to send in a statement of qualifications after the town sent requests to 15 attorneys in the Burlington-Greensboro area.
In his statement to the town, Giles noted that he has been practicing law since 2002 and has a “high level of experience” in municipal law from providing services to the towns of Elon and Ossipee in the past. That experience includes advising governing boards on personnel an employment issues, nuisance issues, challenges to town ordinances and rulings, and taking cases to court on behalf of the towns.
According to his application, Giles has also been a member of Burlington’s board of adjustment since 2014.
In his original proposal, emailed to the town manager on January 19, Giles requested a $2,000 per month retainer to cover attending the town’s semi-monthly meetings and giving staff advice over the phone. An additional fee of $160 would be charged per hour, with an added paralegal fee of $80 per hour.
During Monday’s interview, however, Baxley told the reporter that the board and Giles had instead negotiated to have no retainer and an hourly fee of $160 per hour with the paralegal fee of $80 per hour.
There are also no plans for a set number of hours for a new attorney, Baxley explained, just as there was no set schedule for former attorney Doug Hoy, whom the manager estimated worked for the town only a few hours a week.
Under Hoy’s contract, the town was charged $165 per hour, with Baxley figuring that the now-retired attorney factored paralegal rates into that total. Last year, the town paid Hoy a total of $6,880. Over the course of the past five years, the attorney was paid $45,821 total, according to figures provided by Baxley. In all, Hoy’s annual pay ranged from $5,596 in 2017, the lowest, to $15,112 in 2018, the highest.
See other Gibsonville-related stories in this (Feb. 18) edition – i.e., those related to renovation project for former Gibsonville School:
Aldermen grant another (4th) FINAL deadline for progress on school’s renovation:
The contractor that developers claim to have hired tells town he’s ‘not for hire’:
Developers say they will stabilize school building walls: https://alamancenews.com/gibsonville-school-owners-promise-to-have-walls-secured-by-march-1/