Judge's dispute with town pushes fight over records to court

October 18, 2017 - 8:39 pm

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina appeals court grappled Wednesday with when documents held by government bodies should stay private because they address an employee's work performance.

The state Court of Appeals heard from attorneys in a lawsuit demanding to see documents withheld by the town of Kill Devil Hills. Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett of Manteo, who filed the lawsuit last year, has had a long-running fight with the town's police department after it detained his adult son in 2010.

His lawyer argued to the three-judge panel that the department was marred by bad apples and the town has wrongly withheld an insurance provider's private review by saying it's exempt from disclosure because it addresses the police chief's job performance.

"These people have hidden that conduct," attorney Norman Shearin said. "These folks have been pretty consistent in keeping these documents away from our client."

Tillett was reprimanded in 2013 for misuse of power after pressuring the town's police and the local prosecutor in ways that seemed threatening. The Judicial Standards Commission, which hears complaints against judges, found Tillett's conduct threatened the public's confidence in the court's integrity and impartiality.

When the State Bar also decided to investigate Tillett, he sought defense evidence in town documents under the state law that requires most public papers or electronic correspondence released to people who ask for them. The state Supreme Court in January ruled it was the commission's job to discipline judges.

Kill Devil Hills produced records sought, but a judge last year ordered the Outer Banks beach town to also turn over two documents. They included the insurer's evaluation of the police department, and documents relating to the 2011 suspension of Police Chief Gary Britt and his reinstatement two months later.

Town officials balked, arguing they contained personnel and criminal investigative information, attorney Dan Hartzog Jr. said.

Judges wondered whether government agencies could place any document that referred to an employee outside the reach of public disclosure.

"For a statute that purportedly is about transparency in government, this is an incredibly broad" exception, Judge Richard Dietz said. "Is it your position that once it goes in there (an employee's personnel file), everything that was in that document is now part of that personnel file and can't be disclosed?"

Hartzog admitted that the law allows a broad exclusion.

Tillett, a Republican, is seeking re-election next year.

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