WILMINGTON — Emotions came to a head amid a change in city council’s rules of order Tuesday night, with one member claiming he has been unfairly called out.
Council member Kevin Spears expressed his frustrations following discussion about changes to procedures and policies. He called some fellow board members racists for how they conduct business and for a lack of willingness to change.
“Last night I was at my wit’s end,” Spears told Port City Daily Wednesday. “We talk about transparency, so let’s be transparent.”
The Wilmington City Council approved changes to its rules at the meeting, a resolution tabled from Jan. 24. Spears and council member Clifford Barnett dissented, but the revisions passed 5-2. The updated rules have added provisions around agenda briefings and virtual attendance, both of which were never addressed before. The updates also put a limit on town halls annually to keep staff and resources from being overburdened.
Spears took issue with the updates because he participates in agenda briefings virtually most weeks and also said he was the only council member to initiate hosting a town hall.
Initially the governance committee — comprising Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes and council members Charlie Rivenbark and Neil Anderson — suggested the rule additions discourage all remote participation at meetings. City council holds an agenda briefing twice a month on Mondays ahead of its regular Tuesday council meetings; it also holds budget workshops and special-called meetings on occasion.
It’s not uncommon for council members to occasionally tune in remotely, especially if out of town on city business.
City council member Luke Waddell first offered a compromise in January that was approved Tuesday.
“My position was to allow flexibility for council members to utilize remote participation for all meetings except our regular [Tuesday night] business meetings and in closed sessions,” he wrote in a statement to PCD.
Waddell encouraged in-person attendance for closed sessions due to the privileged nature of the information and to avoid “undue liability” for the city. The approved revisions require in-person attendance for Tuesday evening meetings and closed sessions, except for “exceptional need” — meaning medical reasons or traveling for city business.
Interim city attorney Meredith Everhart said she would inform council by the Friday prior to an agenda briefing if a closed session would be needed to allow members to attend in person, if needed.
Haynes said at the January meeting the governance committee had not considered closed sessions and remote participation.
“It brings up a valid point,” she said. “I could be remote and have people in the room or could be recording.”
In response, Spears told council he has never engaged in such activity. He used the example that attending a closed session in person isn’t necessarily foolproof, if someone chose to record a conversation or allow an outsider to listen in while the phone is muted.
“You can’t legislate integrity,” council member Clifford Barnett said at the January meeting. “Everyone who puts their hands on the Bible and swears to honor the state and the stuff we say when we’re sworn in; we have to honor that.”
Spears echoed that sentiment.
“When we look at integrity, it’s our integrity as council members that’s in everything we do,” Spears said in January. “That’s come to question at any point in time for any one of us.”
Waddell responded integrity was not the basis for the policy decision.
On a call to PCD Wednesday Spears said he thought council moved too quickly on the changes without due diligence.
“And I do feel ostracized by some things,” he said. “And I do feel targeted.”
During the January meeting, Anderson said the changes approved by the governance committee were not about Spears.
“I hate you think that; this was never about you,” Anderson said to Spears at the meeting. “This started before Covid.”
Waddell, elected in 2021, confirmed the same to PCD Wednesday.
“The changes were to establish policies for this council and future councils to operate most effectively for the people of the City of Wilmington,” he wrote.
Everhart told council in January, revisions actually came about in 2019 when former attorney John Joye noticed several points were outdated. Staff began revamping the rules, but the process was halted in 2020 upon the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic.
During that time, all council meetings were remote. The board returned to in-person gatherings March 2021, but even six months later various council members tuned in remotely.
Staff picked up the rules of order again in 2021, meeting with the governance committee. A first draft was approved in October 2022. Everhart incorporated its feedback in a final version presented to the full council Jan. 24.
Spears, who has not missed a Tuesday evening city council meeting since he was elected in 2019, often calls in virtually for Monday morning agenda briefings. He told PCD due to his full-time job, he needs to tune into the 8:30 a.m. meetings remotely.
“I’m not a real estate agent, not an entrepreneur,” Spears said. “I work for someone else. … Not every person can leave their job to attend a meeting.”
As agenda briefings are informational, council does not take formal votes, which was another one of Spears’ defenses to call in virtually.
As a result, he said the proposed changes were affecting him specifically — “why not just put my name on rule 16?” he asked council in January.
“My argument was, show me one instance where we’ve had an issue with me attending an agenda briefing remotely,” Spears told PCD.
Spears said his goal is to create change and push the council’s method of conducting business into the future and modern-day needs. During January’s meeting, Mayor Bill Saffo said he’s discussed the use of video calling with other government officials.
“A lot of governments like portions of it and think it’s a good thing for access and accessibility for participants,” he said. “Everyone has different rules and regulations going forward.”
Everhart confirmed there is no state statute in place that allows or prohibits virtual attendance.
Spears also raised concerns about a section regarding town halls. The new rules limit each council member to hosting two town halls per year due to limited staff time and resources.
He said he is the only council member, in three years since he was elected, who has held town halls — one with council member Barnett and one with Mayor Saffo.
“It’s us being innovative on how we conduct city business; there wasn’t an overextension or exhaustion of resources we used,” Spears said at Tuesday’s meeting.
City manager Tony Caudle maintained parameters were included in revisions to ensure outside community meetings did not overburden city staff.
“The intent was simply to put a guideline in place for that practice where none currently exists,” city spokesperson Jerod Patterson told PCD.
Patterson could not confirm with PCD how many town halls were conducted over the last four years. He said it’s only been a “few times” and requests aren’t frequent.
Spears’ main ask is for the council to be open-minded, he confirmed; if someone presents an idea that differs, council members should take that into consideration.
“I come into every meeting with a fresh start, or I try to,” Spears said. “I am not holding a grudge, but I know who people are, so I’m not going into it blindly.”
Spears ran for council in an attempt to evolve the culture of opportunity, he said, and “even the playing field” for all residents, but especially young people who are “paying attention to politics” and may want to get involved. It’s not just for “retirees or wealthy people,” he added.
“I think there’s a strong sense of entitlement and a reluctance to move forward,” Spears indicated of council. “We want to make people who never felt they could succeed feel that way. That’s my goal.”
He said it’s not about Republicans and Democrats or even Black and white, but about creating equal opportunities and how council treats all people in the community.
“It goes back to my mentality of them doing business as usual,” Spears said. “They’re giving the illusion of being for the people but they’re only being for certain people.”
He used the example of people who care more about the Riverwalk’s national ranking than the individual who is homeless sleeping there and hasn’t had a shower or meal in 24 hours.
During his closing remarks Tuesday, he called his fellow council members’ actions discriminatory.
“I just want to say how proud I am to work with descendants of Alfred Waddell and Charlie Rivenbark, and the undercover racist Margaret Haynes — oh and Neil Anderson,” he said.
Waddell clarified he has no relation to Alfred Waddell, a politician, white supremacist and leader of the 1898 Wilmington Coup and Massacre.
“That was certainly an unfortunate and hurtful remark,” Waddell wrote to PCD.
On Wednesday, Spears told PCD he stands by his statements, adding there is a necessity to “navigate through this town’s troubled past; some of us see Wilmington has a promising future.”
Rivenbark declined to comment to PCD and Haynes, Anderson and Barnett did not reply to requests for comment by press.
Spears also called Rivenbark a “coward” at Tuesday’s meeting for allegedly asking the mayor to cut off Spears’ mic while he was speaking. When asked to confirm as much, Rivenbark told PCD he would not engage in a “he said-she said conversation.”
“This is the same crap you, you, you and you do together as a cohort, for what?” Spears pointedly asked council Tuesday. “You’re not benefiting anybody by doing this; this is not to the benefit of Wilmingtonians for the stuff you come up here to do, continuously. You put on this front like you’re for the forward movement of Wilmington. You’re not. Quit pretending.”
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