The unsigned ballots in the selection of a mayor pro tem at last week’s meeting of the Mount Olive Town Board of Commissioners violated the North Carolina open meetings law.
Amanda Martin with the legal counsel office of the North Carolina Press Association confirmed the way the election was held violated the law.
Commissioner Steve Wiggins was selected by a 3-2 vote to serve in the mayor pro tem seat for the next two years, but the selection was held by secret ballot.
The selection of that seat was the first and only item on the agenda at the Dec. 2 monthly session to swear in a new mayor and current board members.
Newly seated Mayor Kenny Talton opened the business session in calling for nominations.
Then mayor pro tem Harlie Carmichael nominated himself. There was no second to the motion. Then, Commissioner Dennis Draper nominated Wiggins. Still no second and with two nominations on the floor, town attorney Carroll Turner handed out pieces of paper to board members so that they could cast their ballots.
They were passed on to town clerk Kay Anderson, who then announced Wiggins as winner. Following the meeting she said it was a 3-2 vote and also confirmed the ballots were not signed.
Provisions under the North Carolina open meetings and open records waws clearly state: “No secret ballot voting is allowed under North Carolina Law…”
It further has a provision: “Written ballots must be signed and included in the minutes for public record after being counted at the time of the open meeting or afterward.”
The laws are defined under North Carolina General Statute Article 33C, Meetings of Public Bodies, and Chapter 132, Public Records.
Turner differs on the law’s interpretation, and says while the ballots must be signed it does not say when.
He told the Tribune the ballots were signed after the meeting had adjourned. Turner issued the following statement on Friday:
“There has been a suggestion by the press that the vote by ballot of the Mount Olive Board of Commissioners on Monday, Dec. 2 was in violation of the open meetings law. The statute requires that the commissioners sign their ballot. The statute does not, however, require that the ballot be signed immediately. Following adjournment, I immediately witnessed the commissioners sign their oath of office. In addition, I personally witnessed each commissioner sign their ballot with the exception of Commissioner Harlie Carmichael. Mr. Carmichael signed his ballot when he voted for himself and came to town hall yesterday and again signed his ballot a second time. The purpose of the law is to make certain that the public knows how the commissioner voted on an issue. It was abundantly clear, to anyone seeking to know, within minutes after adjournment how each commissioner had voted. In addition, the ballots have been available for public view since the meeting.”
The Tribune checked the ballots at town hall on Friday morning. None were dated with the exception of the one of Commissioner Harlie Carmichael. It was dated Dec. 5, three days after the vote. Carmichael told the Tribune he left not long after the meeting was adjourned, and at no time while he was there was he asked to sign the ballot.
The town attorney was also asked why the ballot vote was held in the first place. His response was, “You will have to ask commissioners that.”
He said he was told several hours before the regular meeting that the board wanted to vote by ballot on the mayor pro tem issue.