Hoke commish blusters, defends county in lawsuit meeting

Though promised “the truth,” very little of consequence was actually said at the meeting

The Hoke County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday morning for a special meeting following the filing of a lawsuit regarding public records requests that were allegedly ignored. Hal Nunn for North State Journal

The Hoke County Board of Commissioners held an odd public meeting Tuesday morning, complete with grandstanding by elected officials and threats to have law enforcement remove citizens from the hearing room.

The special meeting was called after Hoke County was sued by The News-Journal newspaper over submitted public record requests that were allegedly ignored by the county.

The requests related to the use of county funds for construction projects, commissioner stipends and travel expenses, and advertisements on Hoke County property, all seemingly standard requests from a news organization to a government entity.

“When these requests are ignored and disregarded, it is not a reporter or journalist that government officials are ‘sticking it to,’” said News-Journal Publisher Jessica Hendrix Brown in a statement. “It’s the people. The taxpayers. The voters.”

Before going into executive session to hire R. Jonathan Charleston as outside counsel, a lawyer the county has used before in other legal matters, Chairman James Leach gave a rambling speech thanking Hoke County staff for the “great job they’ve done for the county” and claiming “millions” of dollars in savings thanks to the work of staff members.

Though the speech appeared to be addressing matters relating to the public records request, Leach spoke in broad generalities and it wasn’t always clear to what he was referring.

“If you do good, folks don’t like it. If you do bad, folks don’t like it,” Leach said. “But I’m glad this morning that you have the board up here that works good. Does good. An honest board. They don’t mind doing what’s right for all the citizens of Hoke County.”

He thanked the state of Carolina for providing grants to build projects, seemingly claiming that Hoke taxpayer funds weren’t used on the projects in question.

“I hope other states and counties listen, to find out why Hoke County is number one in many, many ways. Not only this board says that, they say it around the state of North Carolina; how well we’ve been doing it in Hoke County,” he continued. “For that reason, we’ve come to set the facts and the record straight.”

Though for all the bluster, not much was set straight. When a citizen stood up, interrupting Chairman Leach to ask if any members of the public would be heard during the meeting, he was rebuffed.

“No sir, it’s not about citizens getting the chance to speak today. We’ve come to set the record straight,” Leach said, before threatening the citizen with removal from the proceeding.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave if you don’t hush,” Leach said, as Vice Chairman Harry Sutherland asked for the Sheriff to join proceedings.

“Bring the Sheriff in. … who else wants to go?” Southerland asked the crowd.

“That’s not why we’re here. You say you want the truth, we come to talk about it,” Leach said. “If you’re not willing to let us talk about it and tell the truth… let us tell you what’s not in the newspaper.”

But the board didn’t share much of anything aside from Leach touting Hoke County as “one of the greatest counties in North Carolina” before the crowd was reminded that there would be no question-and-answer and no public comment allowed in the meeting.

The board then moved into executive session before announcing the appointment of Charleston to represent the board in the lawsuit.

After the meeting concluded, Southerland promised to ”give them everything they asked for, and more!”