Friday, February 3, 2023

Bald Head Island’s mayor accused of favoritism over Hurricane Florence decision

Bald Head Island Mayor Andrew Sayre is still faced with addressing a controversial decision he made in the wake of Hurricane Florence. The decision, which allowed certain property management companies -- including his wife's -- back on the island days before other businesses or full-time homeowners, is still a touchy subject among some Village residents.

After Hurricane Florence, Bald Head Island's mayor initiated a decision that spurred controversy among several island residents. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
After Hurricane Florence, Bald Head Island’s mayor initiated a decision that spurred controversy among several island residents. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

BALD HEAD ISLAND — It was sixteen days after Bald Head Island’s last ferry departed on a mandatory evacuation order when full-time homeowners were allowed back on the island. But certain property management companies, including one owned by the mayor’s wife, were granted early access, at least two days ahead of the first official ferry for returning full-time homeowners.

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Months later, the Village’s lights are back on, but grievances toward the island’s mayor have lingered.

After the storm, the Village of Bald Head Island’s management found themselves “knee-deep in alligators,” wading through the mess Hurricane Florence dumped on the island. Now, it’s wading through accusations of what some island officials are calling “a perception of privilege.”

The decision

On Jan. 26, the Village held its first Hurricane Florence Task Force meeting. The meeting was advertised in a Village’s Voice newsletter and participants could observe via video stream or teleconference. At the meeting, several residents rehashed four-month-old complaints before the seven-member task force.

The complaints boil down to a so-called “perception of privilege.” Following the meeting, Port City Daily was able to substantiate the actions that residents base their criticism on.

On Sept. 27, 2018, certain property management companies were granted access to Bald Head Island. Full-time homeowners weren’t allowed back until Sept. 29 when a phased re-entry process opened. Mayor Andrew Sayre initiated in the decision, which was carried out by Emergency Operations Personnel. Only a few companies — including the one owned by Sayre’s wife, Wendy Wilmot Properties — met the criteria used to determine which property management companies would get early access to the island.

Multiple homeowners and property management companies that did not qualify for early access said they were denied entry at the marina during this time period. Prior to Sept. 29, the marina was guarded by the Village’s Department of Public Safety and North Carolina Marine Patrol officers;  according to the Village’s manager, this was to prevent people from accessing the island.

(Editor’s note: Port City Daily attempted to contact Mayor Sayre shortly after the Jan. 26 meeting but was informed that he had left on a three-week vacation, accompanied by his wife. Neither Sayre or his wife responded to requests for comment while they were away.)

Complaints

Several Village residents aired their disapproval of Mayor Sayre’s decision at the Jan. 26 meeting.

“We’ve lost all confidence in the Village,” Mark Panousis, a full-time island homeowner, said. “The island attempted to silence homeowners. Abuse and favoritism in future events will see the light of day.”

While the melting contents of the fridge and freezer were still draining onto the floor of his full-time home, Panousis said leading property managers were cleaning out rental homes. He accused the mayor of acting in his own best interest and said future “anti-trust” activities would be reported to the Attorney General. His comments were met with loud applause.

Another resident, Charlie Himes, also spoke about an alleged attempt to muffle complaints at the January meeting. He said there was an attempt to stop the formation of the task force, in part because it would include criticism of the mayor. Himes, a long-time member of the Village’s Department of Public Safety, also previously spoke out at a Village Council meeting in October.

“The one thing that just frosted me beyond imagination was the fact that there are three classes of people that live on this island,” Himes said at the October meeting. One “class,” Himes said, includes full-time homeowners. The second, part-time homeowners.

“And the thing that frosted me above all else is the fact that the third category, Mr. Mayor and I believe you made that decision, that a third category was given priority over everyone else on whether or not we were able to return to our homes,” Himes said.

Steve Naysnerski, another Village resident, said at the October meeting he wanted it noted that only specific property managers were allowed on the island.

“I can understand allowing all the property managers, not some of them, to assess property,” Village resident, Donna Patterson, said at the October meeting. Patterson spoke of her disappointment upon hearing about a property manager cleaning their client’s fridges out.

“Why was that allowed? If they were only here to assess then fine, but they weren’t,” she said. “They were doing work on their client’s houses.”

Perception of privilege

At the October meeting, Mayor Pro-tem Kit Adcock acknowledged the fallout from the decision, and her lack of involvement in making it.

“There is a lot of perception of favoritism and privilege,” she said. “The perception of privilege is very real.”

On Adcock’s Facebook page, after midnight on Sept. 26, she tried to untangle this perception.

“There is no conspiracy to favor homeowners of whatever stripe over another. There is no conspiracy to favor businesses over homeowners,” she wrote. “There is no conspiracy to give preference to big businesses over the little ones. There’s no conspiracy to keep people off the island. It’s like anything else – a numbers game.”

But by the time October’s meeting arrived, Adcock’s position appears to have shifted.

Adcock was not consulted until Sept. 23, she said at the October meeting. That was during Council’s first emergency teleconference meeting after Florence made landfall. Council held another emergency meeting, also held via teleconference, the next day, on Sept. 24. Adcock said she came up with the plan to allow for “only homers” properties’– full-time property owners — to be inspected during those conference calls.

“I knew if they were not inspected before the property manager’s that there would be hell to pay,” she said at the October meeting.

But that’s what happened.

Some full-time property owners’ homes were missed in the inspection process, according to the island’s manager, who visited the island flanked by select property management companies on Sept. 27 and 28. This meant some rental properties maintained by leading property management companies were inspected at least two days before full-time residents were permitted to check on their properties.

After being pressed on the issue, Mayor Sayre said at the October meeting, “I made the decision, and I will take the responsibility, knowing that I did not ever make a decision without first consulting with the Emergency Operations Personnel.”

When Adcock shared she wasn’t consulted until Sept. 23, Sayre asked her if she was a member of the Emergency Operations Center. Adcock said all councilors are.

“As an elected member of this body, I am outraged, that’s my primary concern, that we were not consulted,” she said. “Had we not had that telephone conference call, this would have been a worse situation than it turned out to be in terms of public relations.”

On Wednesday evening, Adcock said “emotions were raw all around” at the October meeting. (You can read her full comments at the end of this article) 

“So October 19th was our first public meeting. For those who were able to come, there was a lot to be said,” she wrote in an email. “Was it our finest moment?  No. Certainly not mine.”

Sayre’s take

Sayre did not respond to multiple emails requesting a comment for this article. On Jan. 29, Port City Daily learned Sayre would be on vacation with his wife, Wendy Wilmot, until Feb. 17. Port City Daily delayed publication to give Sayre and Wilmot the opportunity to respond. Multiple attempts to reach Wilmot through email were unsuccessful. A representative of Wendy Wilmot Properties, at the time of publication, has not responded to a separate request to comment.

When reached on his cell phone Monday, Sayre said he had no comment.

During the October meeting, Sayre explained his reasoning in allowing some property management companies on the island early for the purpose of assisting the impromptu post-storm damage assessment team. Golf carts had limited access, given the standing water and downed vegetation at the time, he said.

Property management companies that owned a truck met the criteria. “We thought that was a good way to knock out a bunch of homes in a short time,” he said.

Weighing safety factors and the 1,100-plus homes requiring inspection, Sayre said property management companies could help accomplish the feat “with as few bodies on the island as possible.”

At the time, officials feared a demand of over 1,000 people waiting at the ferry terminal at Deep Point Marina in Southport. Sayre said the decision was made in looking to minimize those numbers.

“We did our best. We were not trying to favor or disfavor anyone. We were trying to keep people safe,” he said. “It was really, really nasty.”

‘We missed some’

In an interview three days after the task force convened late last month, Village manager Chris McCall said the now-fateful decision was just one of hundreds the Village had to make.

“We made hundreds of decisions. Hundreds throughout. While some may question that, I  think, again, it wasn’t a decision that was made with any intent of treating anyone group or individual moreso over the other,” he said.

It was not an absolute “unilateral decision,” according to McCall, and was discussed at great length between the Emergency Operations Center team, which includes the Public Safety Director, before it was implemented.

In theory, McCall said picking truck-owning property management companies would cast a wide net for the island’s surveying efforts. “The idea was look, when you look at the percent of homes on a property rental program, that’s a significant number of homes,” he said. “In theory the idea was, identify who the major property real estate management companies are and coordinate with them.”

Though McCall stands by the move, he said he has empathy for homeowners who disagree.

“Who owns one of the biggest real estate property management companies on the island? The mayor’s wife,” he said. “There’s that perception there. Right, wrong or indifferent, people have their opinions. It doesn’t matter how I explain, I was there, I mean, I’m the Village Manager.”

Six people per company that had access to a truck helped assist Village management on Sept. 27 and 28 in surveying the island’s homes. Wendy Wilmot Properties, Tiffany’s Beach Properties and Seabreeze Rentals were among the select companies permitted early access, McCall said. The group surveyed hundreds of homes over the two-day-period, but some, McCall said, were regrettably overlooked.

“We missed some. I feel like we put forth an honest effort to identify the big ones that had a majority of the housing stock so that when it was all said and done, out of those 1,175 homes, we got a good percentage of those,” he said.

Before homeowners could arrive on Sept. 29, McCall said multiple people attempting to return at the marina on their own accord were turned away for safety reasons. Department of Public Safety and North Carolina Marine Patrol officers were stationed at the marina to help enforce the island’s State of Emergency declaration.

“Some of these folks tried to sit there on the edge of the dock and wait us out,” McCall said. “It’s tying up assets, it’s tying up my people.”

With the task force’s formation, McCall said the Village is taking the steps to learn. “I think the lesson learned is, you might have a good plan when you go to war,” he said. “As soon as the first shot is fired, you can throw that plan out the door.”

Legal grey area

While some residents point out a perceived lack of fairness, others question the legality of the decision. Himes, a Department of Public Safety member, told Sayre in October he thought it was borderline illegal.

“But to allow property managers by Wendy Wilmot Properties to come to this Island before Charlie and Susan Himes is not only reprehensible, Mr. Mayor, it’s almost criminal,” Himes said.

But, is it actually criminal?

When presented with the basic facts of the scenario, legal experts said it appears to falls in a legal grey area. Norma Houston, a lecturer in public law and government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government, said the most prosecutable ethical violations for public officials include contractual decisions or failing to recuse oneself from a vote that results in a personal benefit.

Sayre’s decision did not include a contractual agreement, nor did it result from a vote.

“Typically, elected officials get in trouble under the rubric of conflict of interest either when they take a vote or you’ve got a contracting situation,” Houston said.

But for state-level officials, the ethical bar is much higher, she said. “The prohibitions on personal benefit are much broader,” she said. For certain high-level elected and appointed officials, “ethics laws that apply are much more comprehensive.”

Dated, less-used statues could potentially apply in the scenario presented to her, she said, but that would be up to a prosecutor’s discretion.

Glenn Emery, an Assistant District Attorney in the 13th Judicial District, said his office was not aware of the mayor’s post-hurricane decision. After hearing the basic scenario of the decision, Emery agreed it did not meet the criteria in the most-used ethical statues since it was neither a vote nor a contract. 

“Your culpability actually depends in part on the size of the town,” Emery said. “Smaller municipalities are given more leeway in who they can contract with, including themselves.” 

Presented with the basic details, Emery said, “I don’t see there’d be any prosecution warranted.” He added, however, “There may be some civil liability that I’m not aware of.” In civil cases, plaintiffs must prove damages. At two days of a difference between property management companies selected and other companies and homeowners, Emery said he wasn’t sure how damages would be calculated in a hypothetical civil case.

If a law enforcement agency brought it to his attention, he said he would review it.

Emily Flax, spokesperson for the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, said its detective division is not aware of the matter. “It would be highly unusual for a local government agency to investigate another local government agency,” she said.

A spokesperson for the State Bureau of Investigation said its department is not involved in such an investigation. “We generally need a request from a local Sheriff, Chief or [District Attorney] in order to conduct an investigation,” Anjanette Grube wrote in an email.

Update Feb. 22: This article has been updated to include an additional comment from McCall, noting the decision was one discussed at great length with the entire Emergency Operations Center team.


Councilor Kit Adcock’s full comments below:

“I think it’s fair to say emotions were raw all around.

As you may know, the State of Emergency for Bald Head Island was lifted on October 1st. Our community was two weeks behind the rest of the state in beginning our community and individual recovery.

For those of us who are permanent residents, the evacuation duration was trying, the lack of information about our only homes was scary, and the reality of seeing the damage we had to deal with was totally disheartening. Imagine knowing that power to our island was cut off coincident with the mandatory evacuation on 9/12 and was not restored until at the earliest 9/28. Any water intrusion was growing mold. Each of us assumed that we had either wind-driven rain intrusion or for those of us in the forest, trees (and 30+ inches of rainwater) likely penetrating our roofs and the envelopes of our homes. Meanwhile, we were all making accommodations arrangements off the island on a day-to-day basis while we awaited word about getting back.

I think you have access to the primary island Facebook page. If so, you know how tirelessly I worked to explain such un-interesting issues like grinder pumps and lift stations and why lack of electricity meant lack of sewer capacity. In technical jargon that means homes are uninhabitable. Helping my fellow islanders stay informed and stay calm was my goal. It was a chance to build important connections and camaraderie among our community that would help each of us get through the unknowns that lay ahead.

So October 19th was our first public meeting. For those who were able to come, there was a lot to be said. Was it our finest moment? No. Certainly not mine.

I know your article is by now put to bed. I hope it is respectful of our community. As I repeatedly said on Facebook, “We are only as prepared as our last worst emergency.” The October 19th meeting laid the groundwork for a what I hope and expect to be a thorough and thoughtful postmortem. We are very fortunate to have talented and knowledgeable islanders who are volunteering to address future storm-water management, island infrastructure, emergency management plans, communications and other topics relevant to Hurricane Florence and future storms.

The bottom line is that the teams who worked on our flooded island for more than two weeks removing almost two billion gallons of flood water, thousands of downed trees, no power, no potable water or sewer, with alligators and snakes swimming freely around them without a single injury – that’s the story.”


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

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