By Rob Morris on February 4, 2016
Although, some of what we’ve been told borders on outright fantasy.
It’s really about the leaders of a town that just don’t want to do what an ice queen sang three decades later, and “Let It Go!”
After the Voice ran a three-part series penned by a local attorney concerning the contretemps between the Town of Kill Devil Hills and Superior Court Judge Jerry R. Tillett, a few readers expressed dissatisfaction with our decision to run the series.
The critics came from two different camps.
The first simply appeared to be bored by the entire story, considering it old news and implying the Voice was just ‘stirring the pot’ by keeping it alive.
The other group consisted of the same handful of people who have posted on behalf of Kill Devil Hills police chief Gary Britt, including Britt himself, in every online forum in Dare County.
Britt and members of that group believe there is a conspiracy to remove him from office centered on, of all things: Freemasons.
No, we’re not kidding. Dan Brown would have a field day exploring the fertile mind of these folks.
Things on that front have gotten so bad that Britt even ‘sees’ Freemasons who don’t exist, identifying in comments to the Voice the local attorney who wrote the columns as a member, when in fact he is not now and never has been part of that fraternity.
But enough about those guys.
It’s those that said they’d had enough of the story that gave us pause.
First of all, it isn’t the media, including the Voice, that has kept this absurd story alive for so long.
That responsibility lies squarely with the Town of Kill Devil Hills, which has not only refused to accept their “wins” graciously, but have now taken actions that are literally historic and unprecedented in the history of North Carolina and the State Bar.
If a five-year crusade by a town to have an elected judge removed from office in an unprecedented manner isn’t newsworthy, then maybe we should just shut the Voice down.
Or follow the lead of local bloggers who seem more concerned with what hotels commissioners stay in or who shot a bear on county property.
As to what is keeping the story in the news, let’s look at the facts.
In 2011, four former and current police officers filed a petition with the courts to have Chief Britt removed as the town’s top cop.
The four men also filed a civil suit against the town.
Shortly thereafter, the chief was placed on suspension and the then-District Attorney sent the Town a letter stating he was, indeed, filing a petition himself to remove Britt. Sounds like news to us.
By January, 2012, the District Attorney had performed an about-face and chose not to file the removal petition.
The town, not the media, trumpeted this fact in a press release, although they were unable to avoid taking a swipe at one of the officer’s involved, basically calling him a liar in print.
In July, 2012 a visiting Superior Court judge tossed the civil suit, stating it was a personnel matter and noting the officers did not have standing in a state that employs people at will.
Thus, as of July, 2012 the Town had turned back both a petition to remove their police chief and saw a civil suit dismissed without so much as a trial.
Their chief was safely ensconced in his job, where he has been free to preside over the highest turnover rate among police officers in Dare County, and the Voice and other media had turned their attention to other issues.
Moreover, there was zero interaction in any way between the Town and the Judge.
Seems to us the story should have ended there and everyone appeared to have moved on.
But Kill Devil Hills was far from done.
In 2012, the Town decided to file complaints against Judge Tillett with the Judicial Standards Commission.
So the story was back in the news for another year, courtesy of all the public filings and a pipeline of leaks coming from the JSC to a newspaper in Elizabeth City that has a ‘Jones’ for Dare County and Judge’s Tillett and Barnes in particular.
The ‘Daily Advance’ ran stories, editorials and even whined about the outcome, and KDH town staff, particularly Assistant Town Manager Shawn Murphy gleefully reprinted and emailed each anti-Tillett story to town officials and employees as we discovered in our Freedom of Information Act requests.
On March 14, 2013, the Judicial Standards Commission, backed by the North Carolina Supreme Court, issued Judge Tillett a slap on the wrist.
One might have thought the town would have seen this as either a victory, or at least, the actual end of the road, since there is no other constitutional method in North Carolina to remove a judge.
Unless the town could get two-thirds of the General Assembly to impeach and convict Tillett.
An unlikely scenario, and once again, we thought the story was over.
And once again, the Town of Kill Devil Hills immediately revived the story, filing complaints against Tillett and former town attorney Dan Merrell with the State Bar within days of the Judicial Standard Commission decision to leave Tillett on the bench.
Nothing happened for almost two years.
But in mid-2015, the Bar suddenly filed complaints against both Tillett and Merrell and once more made this a media spectacle.
This time, the actions were so unprecedented, and perhaps outside the scope of the Bar’s power that state legislators entered the fray and a prestigious state publication, North Carolina Lawyer’s Weekly, has run at least two articles examining the situation.
We think we’re in good company in our continued coverage of this story.
Indeed, this writer found himself subpoenaed and forced to go to the Bar hearing against Merrell, where once again, the town failed in their goal to have him disbarred.
But taxpayers will be happy to know the entire town management made the trip and Chief Britt even stayed over night to watch the second day of the hearings.
If it’s so important that the town manager, assistant manager, clerk, police chief and assistant police chief need to abandon their posts in order to try to punish a local attorney, who are we at the Voice to decide this story is no longer important?
And so, not only will the coverage continue, it will expand.
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