Hoke commish defends county, apologizes in lengthy speech

Commissioner Allen Thomas spoke for 10 minutes about the records lawsuit

An otherwise routine county commissioner meeting about rezoning, solar farms and health insurance coverage of drugs like Ozempic started off on a more controversial note Monday.

Hoke Commissioner Allen Thomas passionately defended the county and the Board of Commissioners in a 10-minute speech addressing a government transparency lawsuit filed last month by the News-Journal newspaper.

In the lawsuit, the paper alleges the county has stonewalled a series of requests for records related to the use of county funds for construction projects, commissioner stipends and travel expenses, and advertisements on Hoke County property.

In a special session last week, Chairman James Leach gave a more generalized and rambling speech to onlookers, while Thomas seemed more hurt than upset.

“If you all were to go back and look at all the meetings you would see that I don’t talk a lot during County Commissioner meetings. I vote yes or no, and I move on,” Thomas said. “So, I hope to use that time now because I have a few remarks that I would like to share regarding this divisive issue that we found ourselves to be in.”

He then addressed the newspaper directly — with the paper’s publisher in the front row — noting that the paper said “after months of asking for and not receiving the requested public records,” a lawsuit was filed asking the court to order Hoke County to turn over the records.

“We’ve seen on Facebook, many people commenting about Hoke County government hiding records. I’ve seen comments about Hoke County government burning records. That’s a popular one now,” Thomas continued. “It has created the illusion that the whole county has something to hide. I didn’t speak at the specially called meeting, but I’ll speak now. We have nothing to hide.”

Thomas’ issue appears to stem from the News-Journal’s assertion that “Hoke government officials” had repeatedly ignored their requests for documents.

“The average person would take that to mean ‘we,’ the Hoke County government officials. And that’s why you see people so upset. They see their county commissioners refusing a public records request,” Thomas said. “That’s not the case.”

He said the commissioners were surprised to learn of the issue and that none of them had been made aware of the request until the lawsuit was filed, going on to say that the paper should have picked up the phone and called the board members — noting that he had spoken to representatives from the News-Journal seven times since September, none of those in relation to the public records request — to raise the issue.

“I had no idea that they requested these forms,” he said. “It feels as if this was planned … because … if they truly wanted to know, they would have done what the district attorney did when he filed a FOIA request to receive records about another elected body. He gave me a phone call. That same day, I was on the phone with our attorney and we had those records to him within two days. He called me and we made it happen within two days.”

He then got more directly confrontational, saying, “I would imagine most reasonable people would believe that before a newspaper sued their government, they’d done everything in their power to receive the documents that they requested, and nothing was successful. … Do you feel the news journalists did everything they could before they filed this lawsuit?”

It was to this interrogatory that representatives from the News-Journal began speaking directly to the board, leading Leach to threaten to have them removed from the room by a Sheriff’s deputy if they continued to interrupt.

“My grandfather said, ‘A hit dog will holler,’” Thomas noted before asking, “Am I wrong? Am I out of place?”

He went on to note that family members had called him asking if he was going to “go to jail over this mess” without realizing that it was a civil matter, not criminal.

He then promised to release the documents but claimed “what the News-Journal has asked for is going to be the largest public records request this county has ever received. … We’re talking thousands and thousands of pages of records. … We can’t miss one.”

Thomas then revealed that staff members involved in the records request had been counseled over the issue and said that even though he was disappointed that it had to come to a lawsuit, he still wanted to apologize.

“I want to apologize that we have not given you the records,” he said. “Am I upset? Yes. But, even in my anger, I apologize that you have not received them. And I promise that you will receive the documents that you requested. The same way I started, I will end: Hoke County government has nothing to hide.”