Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Surf City Mayor responds to election-season controversies in radio interview

Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin discusses the town's plans to rebuild the sand dunes Monday morning. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin at a meeting earlier this year discussing the town’s plans to rebuild sand dunes damaged by Hurricane Florence. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin has been limited in his responses to Port City Daily regarding controversies surrounding his campaign and that of his political rival. A local radio interview helped clarify some of our questions.

SURF CITY — After weeks of unanswered questions, Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin broke his silence about an altercation over the summer between his personal assistant and the town manager, albeit not to Port City Daily directly.

During a radio interview with WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn, he also addressed two other issues — a mock website targeting the mayor’s political opponent and the district attorney’s recusal from a case against the same political opponent — that have contributed to a controversial election season in Surf City.

Tension between town manager and mayor’s assistant

The verbal argument between Misty LaPointe, the mayor’s personal assistant who is not employed by the town, and Town Manager Ashley Loftis occurred in the town hall’s parking lot a week before council members voted unanimously to search for a new manager.

Multiple emails and phone calls from Port City Daily to Medlin and LaPointe between September 19 and October 11 remain unanswered; the emails asked if the conflict between the two women was related in any way to the vote made the following Friday to hire a new town manager. Multiple emails to each council member also remain unanswered, aside from one “no comment.”

In the radio interview, Medlin denied that a feud existed between LaPointe and Loftis, and also denied that an argument took place in the town hall’s parking lot.

“They were saying that they were arguing in the parking lot,” Medlin told Hilburn. “Nobody — the police report — nobody has said they were arguing in the parking lot. Nobody knows even what they were talking about in the parking lot.”

However, a police report of the incident states that Loftis’ husband requested a police unit go to the Community Center because his wife “was having a verbal argument with someone.”

“We then received word from dispatch that there was a verbal argument occurring in the PVA,” the report continues, referring to a Public Vehicular Area (parking lot). “Upon arrival, I saw Mrs. Loftis and Misty LaPointe in the PVA speaking with each other.” 

The incident occurred approximately 90 minutes after the last in a series of emails exchanged between Loftis and LaPointe, revealing a dispute concerning LaPointe’s presence at “non-public [town] meetings” as someone not employed by the town.

Medlin told Hilburn that his assistant had never attended any closed meetings.

“I don’t care what [Port City Daily] says,” Medlin said. 

However, the reporting specifically stated that due to a lack of response from Medlin and other town officials on the matter, it was unclear if LaPointe attended any closed meetings or other meetings that would be in violation of state law. In essence, Loftis had argued that LaPointe’s presence at non-public town meetings — although it was never confirmed if she had attended an officially closed session — was not legal.

Following the council’s vote to seek a new manager, Medlin said the move was not a demotion for Loftis but an opportunity to take responsibilities off her plate because she had been handling the duties of both the town manager and the finance director. Loftis had served as finance director before becoming the interim town manager in early 2018 before taking the official role that August.

But in terms of both the governing structure of the town and historical salary records, her move back to finance director appears to be a demotion. A response to a public records request shows that Loftis earned $83,988 when she served as the finance director from 2016 to 2018 before receiving $105,000 as interim town manager and a present salary of $112,200. 

Stephanie Hobbs, the town clerk, said it would be inappropriate to comment regarding an expected salary for Loftis once she reverts to her position as finance director. However, once Loftis re-assumes the finance position, her new salary will be public record.

DA’s office recused from investigation after attending campaign event

In late September, it was confirmed that a prosecutor for District Attorney Ben David’s Office had attended a campaign event for Medlin at the Topsail Island Moose Lodge in Surf City, and his attendance caused David’s office to recuse itself from the investigation of his rival, Jeremy Shugarts, on past elections violations.

“The requests came by three phone calls and we were told it was a community event,” David’s assistant, Samantha Dooies, said. “Had we been told the actual nature of the event, we would have responded to the request differently and not sent a representative from the office.” 

A state law restricts state employees’ engagement in political activity while on official duty, including appointed members of the district attorney’s office. Although the prosecutor who attended, Conor Degnan, did not mention Medlin or any sponsorship for his campaign, his presence at a political function presented enough conflict of interest to cause the recusal.

Event posters for a campaign dinner to re-elect Mayor Doug Medlin were posted to Medlin's Facebook campaign page in the days leading up to the event. (Graphic courtesy of the Re-Elect Medlin for Mayor Facebook page)
Event posters for a campaign dinner to re-elect Mayor Doug Medlin were posted to Medlin’s Facebook campaign page in the days leading up to the event, clearly advertising it as one that was political in nature. (Graphic courtesy of the Re-Elect Medlin for Mayor Facebook page)

On the radio segment, Medlin said Port City Daily made a mistake calling the event a fundraiser. [Editor’s note: When the article was first published, ‘campaign fundraiser’ was used in the headline; the word was removed several minutes after publication and replaced with ‘campaign event.’] 

“But it was a campaign [event],” Medlin told Hilburn, adding that he only wanted Degnan to provide information for the citizens in attendance. 

When asked several days after the event if it was political in nature, Medlin said it was a “public community event,” and that he had not asked speakers for any endorsement. He did not respond to an email sent last Friday again asking if he informed anyone from David’s office that it was a campaign event.

He also told Hilburn that he wasn’t aware that it “wouldn’t be legal for a representative of [David’s] to come and speak.”

“That was the mix-up,” Medlin said. “It hurts me that it hurt David, because he is an excellent person, he is a very honorable person. I am as well.”

Mock website

When a website surfaced in August attacking Medlin’s opponent for the mayor’s seat — current councilman Jeremy Shugarts — an email associated with Medlin’s business as well as a 2019 county board of elections document was linked to the website. Medlin repeatedly denied involvement in the creation of the website and said his family business no longer uses the email account in question.

An online search of the email address showed various referrals to East Coast Sports and, often, to Chris Medlin, the mayor’s son who helps him run the business. The younger Medlin was also serving as his father’s campaign treasurer.

When asked in late August if he was involved in the creation of the website, the younger Medlin said repeatedly, “No comment.”

During the radio interview, Mayor Medlin said he had told his son to “stay out of my politics, and he has.” 

Hilburn responded, “He’s your treasurer of the committee.” 

“Not anymore, I took him out as treasurer so there aren’t any complications there,” Medlin responded. 

Elections documents show that Medlin appointed a new treasurer on September 27, a month after his son refused to deny creating the website. 

Medlin also told Hilburn that the “website … was used probably 20 years ago. But now that was a website that was recorded in Burgaw.”

However, the website domain — electjeremyshugarts.com — was likely not recorded two decades ago as Shugarts was still years away from a career in Surf City politics. When asked in an email if he had meant to say “email address” instead of website, Medlin did not respond. 

“That website was put in Burgaw over 20 years ago,” Medlin continued. “So somebody got a hold of that website, some way or the other, and used it.”

If Medlin was referring to the email address, there are also recent links to the mayor’s business and his son. An online search of the email address — ‘ecsports@earthlink.net’ — included a post published on a Topsail fishing blog in August 2019 as well as a short bio of the company’s fishing supplies and charter services on Pender County’s tourism website.  The email listed on the county’s website has since been removed. Additionally, information beneath a 2014 Youtube video, “Chris Medlin for Pender County Commissioner,” includes the same email address. 

“Besides that, what was really on that website was completely true,” Medlin said.

He also told Hilburn that because everything on the mock website concerning Shugarts was true, the state Board of Election said there “was not anything illegal about it.” This is supported by what a spokesperson for the N.C. State Board of Elections (NCSBE) told Port City Daily in late August. 

“We have no indication if the statements were indeed false, or if the statements were published with knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard of the truth or falsity,” NCSBE spokesman Patrick Gannon said at the time.

An email sent to Medlin last Friday asking him about his radio comments concerning all three of these reported incidents — the dispute between the town manager and his personal assistant, the prosecutor’s attendance at a campaign event, and the mock website — were not responded to.

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

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