Friday, April 12, 2024

Sunset Beach councilman alleges state law violation in ‘political’ rejection of mayoral appointment

During a confusing moment in the town council meeting, the mayor pro-tem was voted in to act in lieu as mayor -- a move one councilman says violates state law, and was designed to block the appointment of a qualified candidate who might have interfered with another councilmember's business interests.

During a July Sunset Beach Town Council meeting, a mayoral vacancy was apparently filled, without an actual motion to appoint the vacancy. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
During a July Sunset Beach Town Council meeting, a mayoral vacancy was apparently filled, without an actual motion to appoint the vacancy. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

SUNSET BEACH — A Sunset Beach Councilmember is accusing members of the town’s Council breaking state law and accusing the town’s staff of “passive acceptance.”

Councilman Rich Cerrato is accusing his fellow councilmembers of violating North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law, public official vacancy Statutes, and the town’s ethics policy in order to orchestrate an illegal appointment of Sunset Beach’s mayor; Cerrato is calling for a Local Government Commission investigation and asking for a public apology. (You can read Cerrato’s complete agenda item and statement here).

Cerrato alleges a system of back-door politics, in which Sunset Beach’s staff members are either being intimidated or are complicit in corrupt schemes, that has endured for years.

A mayoral appointment with no motion

In July, Sunset Beach’s Town Council voted on a candidate, its only applicant, to replace a mayoral vacancy. The beach town’s former mayor, Robert Forrester, resigned in March, shortly after Council voted to fire its town administrator during a closed session.

The lone applicant, Gregg Weiss, was interviewed by all councilmembers in private, except for councilman Cerrato, according to Cerrato. Cerrato was not present during the July 2 meeting, in which council voted 2-2 to appoint Weiss and fill the mayoral vacancy.

Because there was a split vote, Weiss was not appointed.

Here’s where things get tricky.

Councilman John Corbett then made a motion. Addressing mayor pro-tem Mark Benton, Corbett said, “I think you’ve been doing a fine job as mayor pro-tem, I’d like to make a motion that we keep you on as mayor pro-tem until the next election in November 2019 — if you’d be willing to serve.”

Benton responded, “Well, I’d be willing to serve, but I think that — well right now, can I think about full time, but I would keep the mayor pro-tem now.”

Based on this exchange, Corbett said “I’ve made a motion,” which was then voted on, passing 3-1.

According to Cerrato, this is problematic because the motion did not actually address the mayoral vacancy; it also failed to address Councilwoman Jan Harris’ concern that the council should wait for all members to be present before voting on the mayoral appointment issue.

Video: The mayoral vacancy issue is discussed starting at the 6-minute, 20-second mark.

After the meeting transpired, Cerrato said Corbett’s motion was somehow misinterpreted by many to mean that Benton would serve as both mayor and mayor pro-tem. When Cerrato’s first raised concerns, Corbett wrote a letter to the town’s administration. According to Cerrato, Corbett’s letter states: “My motion was to have Mayor Pro-tem serve in lieu of an appointment of a new mayor until the next election.”

As no formal motion had been made to actually replace the mayoral vacancy, Cerrato introduced two agenda items for discussion during Council’s meeting this week: “Mayoral Vacancy: A Legal Review and Public Discussion” and “Violation of Open Meetings Law and Public Review.”

According to Sunset Beach’s town clerk, Lisa Anglin, both items were removed from the agenda Tuesday.

“At the beginning of the meeting they actually removed the first and the second items from the agenda,” Anglin said. 

Cerrato’s accusations

“In addition to the open meeting law concerns and a violation of the Town’s Ethic’s Policy, the Town may have also violated the Public Official Vacancy Statutes as outlined by the NC School of Government,” Cerrato wrote in an agenda item, dismissed Tuesday.

“This also raises the major concern why everyone seemed to understand Mr. Corbett’s intent” Cerrato wrote, “but on the other hand, failed [to] listen to the actual wording of the motion?”

Cerrato also alleges the move may have been orchestrated to protect Corbett’s business interests.

The result of the transaction, Cerrato said, has created the perception that the event was pre-planned. In his second agenda item, Cerrato alleged the candidate, Weiss, was rejected on the basis of the candidate’s concerns presented about the dredging of Jinks Creek. Councilman Corbett would financially benefit from the dredging, Cerrato said.

“The [Local Government Commission] must determine if our Staff is fearful of any retaliation including losing their employment job just for speaking up. Sadly, this is the same demonstrated behavior when the LGC investigated and confirmed the many Sunset at Sunset irregular activities including obvious conflict of interest activities that were allowed for several years,” Cerrato said.

Cerrato added, “Staff’s passive acceptance is an alarm that needs to be addressed.”


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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