SURF CITY — Mayor Doug Medlin has responded to concerns raised at a recent town council meeting where residents complained of inadequate communication in the weeks surrounding Hurricane Florence.
During the meeting, Councilwoman Teresa Batts argued that, although communications were lacking during this time, council members’ own communications to residents are restricted by town policies and guidelines.
“There are guidelines on how we can get information to you,” Batts told residents gathered at the Surf City Community Center. “I have to post town updates. So when the town posts updates, then I can personally send those out again. I can copy and paste. I am not allowed to give personal updates as to what is happening.”
Although Batts didn’t respond to a phone call asking about her comments at the meeting, Medlin answered on her behalf, emphasizing the importance of a central system of communication.
“What she was talking about is that most of the town communication goes out through the town. In other words, it’s coming from the town system and has already been approved by the manager, myself, and [others],” Medlin said.
Regarding Councilman Jeremy Shugart’s emails sent to residents before and after Florence made landfall, Medlin said that although Shugarts is entitled to send personal emails to his constituents, he should leave official statements to the town’s central communication system.
“There is not a gag order [in place],” Medlin said, adding that council members should use caution with what they say to avoid confusing the city’s stance on any given issue.
In the days leading up to Florence’s landfall, Shugarts sent emails discussing changes to recent forecast models, voluntary and mandatory evacuation orders voted by the town council, the shutting down of water and sewage on Topsail Island, and curfew hours.
“I have received many complaints about the lack of communication from our city officials,” Shugarts wrote on Sep. 16, two days after Florence hit the North Carolina coast.
He said that the town’s first responders, city employees, mayor, and council had stayed during the storm and worked around the clock, sleeping in makeshift bunkers, to provide relief services — everyone was experiencing communication problems during this time.
“The mayor and city have sent out messages, all-calls and Facebook posts. I understand some of you have not received any of these … I am not sure why you did not but I know that we always have to work hard on improving how we communicate,” Shugarts continued.
In response to residents’ insistence that the town should enhance their communication system, Medlin said that he is now posting a “Mayor’s Address” weekly on the town’s website. Town Manager Ashley Loftis, meanwhile, will now meet with different department heads and send weekly updates to council members.
Medlin continued to underscore the value of a centralized, streamlined system, one where all official statements first pass through the town’s attorney, Charles Lanier.
“I want it approved through the attorney before we say anything that we’re going to do,” Medlin said.
This was particularly important, Medlin continued, concerning certain issues that have been discussed at recent council meetings. To his understanding, for instance, local restaurant owners have formed an association against the interests of food trucks operating in the town; and the role of an attorney acting on their behalf is crucial.
“I’m just trying to protect the town … When we protect the town then we protect each and every citizen. Because if it costs the town, then it actually costs the citizens,” Medlin said.
On Monday, Medlin is accompanying Wilmington’s mayor Bill Saffo, the town manager of New Bern, and Pender County officials to Washington, D.C. to meet with senior staff of U.S. congressmen to discuss relief assistance for the region.
Once there he will focus on pushing FEMA to approve vital recovery funds — a lengthy, bureaucratic process that is important for the reimbursement of the town’s recovery expenses, according to Medlin.
“It could cost us another dollar and a quarter on taxes,” Medlin said, referring to the town’s recovery expenses that, if not approved by FEMA, will increase residents’ property tax rate. “Instead of paying $1,500 a year in tax, you’re paying $6,000. That’s a big difference.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com