WILLIAMSTON, N.C. (WNCT) — A lawsuit has been filed in Martin County against three commissioners following the closure of Martin General Hospital.

The notice of the lawsuit was issued on Tuesday. It says, “Following the devastating loss of Martin General Hospital in August, today several local citizens, including two county commissioners, filed suit against Martin County Commissioners Ronnie Smith (chairman), Dempsey Bond, Jr. and Emily Biggs in their official capacities. The suit alleges numerous violations of North Carolina Open Meetings Law, corresponding Public Records Law violations, and seeks to nullify the results of illegal meetings or approvals by the defendants regarding the hiring, compensation and salary increases for County Manager James Bennett.”

The lawsuit was filed by Martin County residents Laurence E. Lilley, Jr., Walter Whitfield, Mamie Bernadette Rodgers, Charles Brent Roberson, William David Gurganus and Joseph Robert Ayers. Gurganus and Ayers are Martin County commissioners.

A statement was released from those filing the lawsuit.

“We, along with many others in our community, know that restoring our hospital is truly a life-or-death matter for the people of Martin County, and it was the dereliction of duty by some of our county’s leaders that put us in this tragic position. We believe the mishandling of the hospital situation follows a pattern of reckless behavior that began with the illegal hiring of our county manager and subsequent pay raises he received. The only way Martin County has a chance to right the course on our hospital is to have leaders who conduct themselves ethically, transparently and with the best interest of citizens at heart. This lawsuit is designed to shine a light on the misconduct of some of our elected officials to bring about immediate leadership changes that would better position our county to restore critical health care services.”

The notice of the lawsuit listed key points that include:

  • The details of the complaint include nine different violations of the Open Meetings Law.
  • The suit alleges that the defendants conducted a series of meetings since February 2021 in which public business was transacted without proper notice, without opportunity for public access, and without the creation of required minutes – in violation of both the open meetings and public records laws.
  • As a result, the plaintiffs request the court nullify the results and/or consequences of all illegal meetings or approvals by the Martin County Defendants regarding the hiring, compensation, and increased compensation of County Manager James Bennett which resulted in nearly $60,000 in raises over 2 ½ years to $186,179 annually.
  • The plaintiffs request reasonable attorney’s fees and, if appropriate, that the court order all or a portion of any fees paid personally by any or all defendants.

The notice went on to say:

“To summarize, it is the plaintiffs’ position that County Manager Bennett’s hiring, compensation and subsequent raises were in violation of Open Meetings Law and the policies of the Martin County Board of Commissioners. While the lawsuit focuses on these matters, the mishandling of the hospital closure was an extension of this pattern of recklessness and mismanagement. The goal of the lawsuit is to bring about immediate leadership changes to better position the county in its efforts to reopen the hospital.”

Wednesday’s county commissioners meeting

Wednesday was also the latest Martin County Commissioners’ meeting. It was a packed house with tensions evident among the board members and citizens wanting answers. There was also a motion to get Bennett removed from his position. It was voted down, 3-2, with Bond, Biggs and Smith voting to keep Bennett.

“What I’m here for, Commissioner Bond, is to look out for these people,” Ayers said during the meeting. He requested items on the agenda be held in an open session. That included general personal policy issues, qualifications, character fitness and performance and the removal of a member of the public body.

“Ever since this chair has been in this seat, we’ve had a closed session every meeting except for one,” Ayers said. “Every single one, that’s not necessary.”

Citizens also said they want to know what’s there to hide and believe certain items on the agenda should be discussed out in the open.

“You all have hid in the darkness of closed sessions and meetings that I believe in some cases are illegal. and private and secret meetings have taken place,” said Paul Roberson. “That’s gonna come to light. and you’re gonna have to answer for those issues.”

“We need good leaders, we need people that’s gonna support Martin County,” said Linda Gibson. “We don’t need people that are gonna get behind the citizens here in Martin County get behind their back and you do what you feel like is right.

“Every last one of them in there, that County Manager Bennett and that head commissioner Ronnie Smith, the blood of these people is on their hands,” Marie Perry said.