The Board of Lewis County Commissioners on Tuesday voted to absorb a settlement of over $37,000 in plaintiffs’ attorney fees in a lawsuit alleging multiple violations of the state Open Public Meetings Act this year.
The commissioners earlier this summer agreed to settle the suit for $20,000 — $10,000 to each plaintiff — plus attorney fees that until now were not determined.
The entire $57,370 settlement will come from the commissioners’ budget. The Board of Commissioners earlier this summer discussed the possibility of claiming the settlement on their individual bonds as elected officials, but noted that they would not know if the claim would be approved until after they submitted it.
The lawsuit was filed April 21 by Brian Cortland and Brian Green after reporting by The Chronicle on one instance of a meeting of the county commission being called without proper notice. It was learned that the Board of Commissioners was operating on a 2009 resolution that claimed the board was in open session from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day while in the Lewis County Courthouse.
The lawsuit argued that the county’s public meeting policy has been illegal and that the commissioners knew it.
In May, Lewis County adopted a new public meeting policy that strictly follows the state Open Public Meetings Act.
Budget Analyst Becky Butler told commissioners on Tuesday that they will have to either amend or find a reduction in the current budget to pay the settlement.
The commissioners were also advised that if they didn’t settle, the cost could double by the time the issue is resolved.
“It’s very distressing that this kind of activity is happening,” Commissioner Edna Fund said. “... As we said before, we’ve been operating this way for a gazillion years even before we (were) commissioners. This was the accepted way of conducting business and it just doesn’t feel very good.”
The settlement was approved with a 2-1 vote by commissioners. Commissioner Bobby Jackson opposed the settlement.
“We were backed into a corner and I’m southern so my Celtic nature is to fight my way out of a corner,” Jackson said prior to opposing the settlement.