6/17/12 Attorney General’s office weighs in on dispute

Attorney General’s office weighs in on dispute
By Michael D. Abernethy The Times-News 6/17/12     
Reprinted with permission.

   County Attorney Clyde Albright’s interpretation of a N.C. Department of Justice’s written response to questions about the school system’s use of taxpayer funds in promoting its budget differs from what the letter says.

   In a letter dated June 13, an assistant state attorney general responded to Albright’s questions regarding advertisements and automated phone calls by the school system about the county’s annual budget. Albright believes the school system’s messages, which included contact information and term expiration dates of Alamance County Commissioners, were sent to promote the school’s budget agenda and influence the election.

   In the letter, N.C. Assistant Attorney General Tiffany Lucas appears to decline applying state law to the disagreement between the county and ABSS and recommends the county pursue judicial action for a resolution.

   “Although the Attorney General does offer opinions on the meaning of statutes, the application of the statutes to particular facts is a judicial function. It does not appear that there is any dispute over the meaning of the referenced statute in this case. If the county has a dispute with the ABSS board over whether the board’s actions violate the statute, it will need to seek judicial intervention,” Lucas wrote.

   Albright received the letter Friday and forwarded the response to the county commissioners. The Times-News received a copy of Albright’s email from County Commissioner Tim Sutton. In the email, with the subject line “Attorney General Agrees 126-13 was violated” Albright said, “I have attached the letter from the attorney general assigned to the Education Section in which she agrees with my interpretation of the statute and suggests ‘judicial intervention .’ I do not recommend judicial intervention.”

   Trey Allen, a Raleigh attorney representing the ABSS school board, disagrees with Albright’s interpretation.

   “I absolutely don’t read it as a vindication in any way of the county’s position. It appears to me that the attorney general’s office is declining to get involved,” Allen said Saturday. “The letter certainly does not say the school system violated the law.”

   Additionally, Allen believes Lucas responded to Albright before receiving the school system’s response, which wasn’t mailed until the morning of June 13.

   Albright could not be reached for comment Saturday. A representative from the N.C. Department of Justice also couldn’t be reached Saturday.

   Earlier this month, the school system posted funding information and a message from Superintendent Lillie Cox on its website and in emails about a proposed 10 percent local funding cut by the Alamance County Board of Commissioners in its 2012-13 budget. Included in that information was county commissioners’ contact information and term expiration dates.

   Albright sent a letter June 8 totheN.C.DepartmentofJustice asking for guidance, saying that the school system’s advertisements “are more than informational in nature and implicitly promote candidates sympathetic to the ABSS policy and denigrate candidates who may have other funding priorities.” Allen and several school board members spoke in favor of Cox’s actions following Albright’s complaint.

   The three county commissioners whose terms expire this year — Chairman Tom Manning, Vice Chairman Eddie Boswell and Linda Massey — told the Times-News they think Cox acted inappropriately. Cox said Saturday that she included the contact information and term-limit information for commissioners because it appears on the county’s website and “that’s the same information we post about (school) board members.”

   “I was really just notifying the public of serious budget cuts and the fact that the school board may be put in a position in the next several years that could impact children,” Cox said.