Saturday, January 28, 2023

“Slap in the face”: Southport aldermen defy ABC board direction with new appointment

The Southport ABC board gained three members last week — one who was reappointed and two new players. (Port City Daily).

SOUTHPORT — The Southport ABC board gained three members last week — one who was reappointed and two new players. But the vote shows tensions between the ABC board and aldermen have yet to die down after a year of turmoil. 

On Jan. 12, the aldermen voted 4-2 to go against the ABC board’s recommendation and appointed Jim Poppy, along with Adam Steadman and incumbent Zach Zuehlke, to oversee the alcohol sales body. 

READ MORE: Blame it on the booze: Inside the showdown between Southport’s aldermen and ABC board

Poppy, who had applied for a different open seat last year, was not part of the ABC board’s chosen candidates like the other two. The ABC board supported Ryan Morgan, a 32-year Southport resident and former Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point employee. 

After Mayor Joseph Hatem, the liaison between the aldermen and ABC board, reported the board’s three nominees at the meeting, alderman Richard Alt made a motion for an amended slate of candidates. He suggested replacing Morgan with Poppy.

Although not part of the five candidates interviewed for the three open positions, Poppy was a candidate in last year’s interviews for William Davis’ seat. Poppy was nominated to replace Davis by alderman Robert Carroll in July 2022. Carroll stated he knew some of the applicants at that meeting. 

Davis, who was eventually reappointed in November and maintains his decade-long position as board chair, told Port City Daily the appointment of Poppy was “politically-driven.” He said  the move is just another in a long line of slights against the ABC board over the last year. 

In March 2022, Davis submitted his letter to be reappointed to the board, like he had done for the last 10 years. Instead, the board wanted to open applications for the seat, but after reviewing other people, the ABC board still picked Davis. 

The aldermen delayed voting on the topic three times over three months in favor of reopening applications, interviewing all candidates and learning more about the ABC board’s policies and procedures. 

To Port City Daily in November, ABC board members characterized the aldermen’s motives as political. On July 28, Angela Wadsworth wrote an op-ed in the State Port Pilot hypothesizing the aldermen wanted to appoint their friends and fulfill promises to constituents. 

Aldermen Alt, Carroll and Lowe Davis have been critical of the ABC board, citing a lack of transparency and ineffective policies. The months-long saga culminated in a November joint session to answer questions and clear the air. Renee Metz, assistant general counsel of the North Carolina ABC Commission, attended to answer questions. 

Although aldermen eventually reappointed Davis to the board, they also voted to add two more ABC board members, upping membership from three to five. Following that decision, the ABC board opened applications for the two new positions; the third seat was up for consideration after Zuehlke’s term ended in December. 

According to Hatem, aldermen considered applications from previous rounds, hence Poppy’s nomination. 

“[We said] we’re going to open it up again, but you don’t have to re-interview someone who has already been interviewed — and he was in that group,” Hatem said. 

The state statute governing ABC board appointments does not require an application nor interview process to make appointments. Assistant City Manager Dorothy Dutton said she is not aware of any rule restricting aldermen just to the application pool. 

“[The aldermen] have the authority to put whoever they want on the board, but I think it’s a slap in the face,” Davis told PCD Wednesday. 

The amended slate with the Poppy substitute was supported by aldermen Alt, Davis, Carroll and Thomas Lombardi — though the vote wasn’t clear at first. 

Hatem asked for a show of hands for the revised list and Lombardi raised his hand but dropped it quickly. Because the action was unclear to Hatem, he asked for everyone to raise their hands again — no one did. 

Alderman Karen Mosteller clarified the motion on the table was not the ABC board’s recommendation, which Hatem confirmed. Expressing frustration, Carroll said it was pretty clear four hands were in the air during the first vote. 

Hatem asked Lombardi to clarify his vote. 

 “Yeah, I’ll vote in favor,” Lombardi said. “I’m a little confused.” 

The mayor explained again the motion was to appoint Zuehlke, Steadman and Poppy. 

The final count showed Lombardi in favor, with Mosteller and John Allen dissenting. 

During discussion, Mosteller indicated she respected the ABC board’s picks, namely because of the success of the ABC store. It has an estimated total revenue for the 2022-2023 fiscal year of almost $550,000 — the equivalent of another 5 cents in the property tax rate. 

“We joke about why our ABC board is so successful, but the continued growth is a measure of the success of the current ABC board’s leadership,” Mosteller said in the meeting. “I just want to say that I support the recommendations of the board.”

Hatem, who votes on motions only as a tiebreaker, concurred with Mosteller’s sentiments on the board’s success, calling it “one of the most high-functioning parts” of Southport. 

Carroll explained to Port City Daily that he didn’t think Poppy was a better candidate than Morgan, just that he was qualified. 

“The motion that was in front of me at the time was the motion that I had to entertain,” Carroll said. 

Alt, who made the motion, did not return a request for comment. 

Carroll also clarified with PCD that he only was familiar with Poppy because he was a Southport resident. 

“Within Southport, it’s kind of hard to not know everybody, given what I do and the business that I’m in,” Carroll told PCD Tuesday.

Hatem confirmed to PCD he did not know of any personal connections between Poppy and any aldermen. Because of Southport’s tight-knit community, he said an alderman would probably have to be related to a board appointee to constitute a conflict of interest. 

He also offered some insight on why the vote landed in favor of Poppy. 

“I think it’s because of his years of experience in retail,” Hatem said. “He was the executive vice president of Trader Joe’s and got a tremendous amount of experience in that regard and I think the board was in favor of that.”

Hatem also said while he didn’t see how a five-member board could be more successful than the current makeup, it does provide more citizens with volunteer opportunities. 

The aldermen could have one final say before the new ABC board is fully installed: choosing a board chair. Davis is the de facto chair for now, but the aldermen could appoint someone else, including a new member. While Davis has said he doesn’t remember the aldermen making appointments, as he became chair after the death of his two other board members, state law stipulates the city has the authority to name the chair. 

The ABC board next meeting will take place on Feb. 18 at 6:30 p.m. in Southport’s Indian Trail Meeting Hall. 

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