Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Surf City town manager’s demotion came shortly after altercation with mayor’s personal assistant

Issues arose after the mayor brought his personal assistant — who isn't a town employee — to meetings not open to the public. 

Surf City Town Manager Ashley Loftis, front center, speaks during a special meeting in August. Earlier in the summer, Loftis had a dispute with the personal assistant to Mayor Doug Medlin, pictured opposite center. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough) 
Surf City Town Manager Ashley Loftis, front center, speaks during a special meeting in August. Earlier in the summer, Loftis had a dispute with the personal assistant to Mayor Doug Medlin, pictured opposite on the right. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

SURF CITY — A week before a closed meeting vote to hire a new town manager, Surf City Police officers were dispatched to a verbal altercation between the current town manager and the mayor’s personal assistant. 

The incident occurred at the town hall’s parking lot on Friday, July 12, following a dispute between town manager Ashley Loftis and Misty LaPointe, who is employed as Mayor Doug Medlin’s personal assistant and is not on the town’s payroll.

RELATED: Surf City votes to hire new town manager in closed session

According to a police report detailing the incident, the town’s director of emergency management first received a call from Loftis’ husband, Travis Loftis, who requested a unit be dispatched to the Surf City Community Center. The building is currently home to the town’s administrative offices and monthly council meetings.

“We then received word from dispatch that there was a verbal argument occurring in the [parking lot],” Sergeant Timothy Cowie wrote in the report. “Upon arrival, I saw Mrs. Loftis and Misty LaPointe in the [parking lot] speaking with each other. Mrs. Loftis assured me that everything was fine several times so myself and Officer Benson left the area.”

Police dispatch comes hours after email exchange

According to the report, Sergeant Cowie received the complaint at 5:52 p.m., approximately 90 minutes after the last in a series of emails exchanged between Loftis and LaPointe. The emails reveal a dispute concerning LaPointe’s presence at non-public town meetings as someone not employed by the town.

Hours before, LaPointe first wrote to Loftis that Councilman Jeremy Shugarts had complained about her attendance at a meeting concerning the misconduct of Camp Lejeune Marines on the town’s beach. In the email, she said that although Shugarts had labeled the meeting “confidential,” there was no prior verbal or written indication that it was closed or confidential. She also said that she had met several times with Loftis to discuss her “presence and attendance at any town meetings, events, or other.”

“In these conversations, I have specifically requested for you to communicate directly with me or Mayor Medlin if my attendance is not appropriate or crossing any legal boundaries,” LaPointe wrote.

In response, Loftis acknowledged the meeting was not announced as confidential but also said it was not a public meeting, something Loftis should’ve been well aware of due to their own prior conversations about the subject.

“In these conversations I have tried to explain to you the best I can that your presence is not legal in non-public meetings,” Loftis wrote. “You are not a town employee and should not be involved in town business.”

Loftis said it is Mayor Medlin’s responsibility, not her own, to ensure LaPointe is not involved in town business because she “works for him and not the Town.”

“The bottom line is that you should not be involved in town business, this is [town clerk Stephanie Hobbs’] responsibility,” Loftis wrote.

On July 19, a week after the incident, council members met during a closed session and voted unanimously to begin the process of hiring a new town manager. Medlin said the move was not a demotion for Loftis at the time. Because of the town’s fast growth, two separate positions were needed to carry out the responsibilities of the town manager and finance director — both of which Loftis was handling — according to Medlin.

In emails sent Thursday, both Medlin and LaPointe were asked if the dispute between Loftis and LaPointe was related in any way to the decision to seek a new town manager. Follow-up emails and phone calls were not responded to.

Multiple emails were also sent to all council members, asking if Loftis’ performance as town manager gave any indication she should not serve in that capacity. Only Shugarts responded, although he offered no comment on the matter. Shugarts is running against Medlin for the mayor’s seat this November as he faces multiple counts of elections violations and a court date on September 30.

Asked if she thought her conflict with the mayor’s personal assistant was related to the town’s decision to seek a new manager, Loftis also declined to speak on the situation.

“[A]t this time I have no comment on this issue,” Loftis wrote.

Is LaPointe’s attendance at town meetings legal?

Frayda Bluestein, a professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, said the legality of an individual not employed by a town who nonetheless attends non-public town meetings depends on various scenarios. If it was an unofficial meeting between town employees, LaPointe’s attendance would only be a legal issue if matters of personnel or topics confidential in nature were discussed.

The second scenario is a closed session. According to Bluestein, the council must come to an agreement to allow someone of LaPointe’s status into the meeting. But in certain situations — like those that require attorney-client privilege or personnel matters — LaPointe’s presence would not be legal.

“Those are two examples of situations where even if the board said, ‘Yeah fine, that person can come in,’ they legally can’t,” Bluestein said. “And it destroys their authority — the legitimacy of that closed session.”

She said LaPointe could, however, attend meetings that discuss other issues — like the town’s bargaining position for acquiring property — if the board agrees on her attendance.

So if nobody on the council is saying that it’s not okay, and if it doesn’t violate any legal restrictions — in terms of things that they’re talking about not being open to the public — then that sounds like it’s going to be an issue between the manager and the mayor,” Bluestein said.

Although Loftis confirmed that the meeting held to discuss Marines’ behavior on the beach was not announced as confidential, she also said LaPointe’s presence “is not legal in non-public meetings.” Due to a lack of response from town officials on the matter, it is unclear whether LaPointe attended any meetings that would violate state law.

It is also unclear if council members came to any sort of agreement over LaPointe’s attendance during prior closed session meetings, if she was in attendance during such meetings.

Read the July 12 email exchange between LaPointe and Loftis below:

Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815

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