Saturday, June 15, 2024

Boiling Spring Lakes Commissioner resigns in protest of alleged rule-bending

"Right’s right, wrong’s wrong. It’s that simple folks."

Former Boiling Spring Lakes Commissioner Guy Auger, a construction contractor, resigned in the middle of his four-year term last week over a rule-bending issue he says he could not stand to keep under wraps any longer. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

BOILING SPRING LAKES —With two years left in his term, now-former Commissioner Guy Auger abruptly announced his resignation at Boiling Spring Lakes’ last regular meeting of the year. His fellow commissioners described the resignation as a disappointing disagreement. But for Auger, his departure was based on philosophical and ethical differences.

“It’s not over a disagreement. I have gone two years with many disagreements about issues we vote on. That’s not why I left,” Auger said. “I’m not going be apart of a corrupt city that covers things up.”

A sudden resignation

After months of what Auger describes as behind-the-scenes wrangling with his fellow commissioners and city staff, he announced his resignation, effective immediately, at the city’s Dec. 3 meeting.

The issue at hand was, according to Auger, that the city was bending the rules for a property that wasn’t in compliance. Though the procedural issue that led to Auger’s decision has yet to fully come to light, Auger said his thought process is black and white: If you bend the rules this time, what’s the point of the rule?

Auger said he also had issues with City Manager Jeff Repp on other topics, including an allegedly disgruntled staff and issues involving allegedly delayed or misrepresented action-related information presented to council. Repp denies Auger ever brought these concerns to his attention.

“You think I’m going be silent,” Auger said he told commissioners in closed session. “They said you can’t discuss, as a commissioner, anything in a closed meeting. I said, ‘Exactly. As a commissioner, I cannot.'”

With the exception of trade secrets or personnel information, elected officials are free to discuss details of a closed session (though it’s socially discouraged to do so) in accordance with their First Amendment rights. However, this particular issue involves a personnel matter that may be considered confidential.

Auger said he gave fellow board members an ultimatum that had been brewing in previous closed session meetings: terminate Repp’s contract and make right on the noncompliance issue or he’d resign.

Other commissioners

Former Commissioner Mark Stewart, whose term ended that meeting, said he wouldn’t exactly characterize the closed-door dispute this way but declined to describe what did happen; Commissioner Steve Barger also declined to discuss the closed session discussion.

Barger said he hadn’t heard about the noncompliance issue in three months and was under the impression it had been handled. “It’s concerning to me and I’m going to look into it further now that I know it wasn’t resolved,” he said.

Both Barger and Stewart were familiar with an alleged issue with low staff morale and acknowledged they were concerned. However, Barger added he felt the morale issue had more to do with the recent changes to employee benefits and noted Auger was the lone commissioner to vote against an employee November “longevity” (or holiday) bonus that passed 4-1.

Last week, Commissioners exited the closed session called at the beginning of the meeting before the agenda was approved. Auger stood up, announced his resignation, and walked out.

“I’m not a commissioner anymore. If that’s what I gotta do to blow the whistle on you people, I’ll resign,” Auger said in an interview. “Right’s right, wrong’s wrong. It’s that simple folks.”

The compliance issue

In January, the city issued both a Zoning Compliance Certificate and Certificate of Occupancy for a Habitat for Humanity residential project, despite having a final as-built survey that showed side setbacks were eight inches out of compliance, encroaching on the neighbor’s property.

The project involves a loophole that has since been closed but which, at the time, allowed Zoning Compliance Certificates to be issued around the same time Certificates of Occupancy could be issued. This left open the possibility that an entire structure could be constructed out of compliance with local zoning requirements. In June 2018, Boiling Spring Lakes adopted a new Unified Development Ordinance, closing the loophole and requiring as-built surveys to be conducted upon completion of the building foundation.

The new rule would allow planning and zoning staff to require any necessary adjustments before the entire structure was built — instead of having to deal with a fully-built but out-of-compliance structure.

The Habitat for Humanity project obtained a building permit in March 2018 — before the loophole was closed — and submitted its final as-built survey in December 2018, five months after the UDO changes took effect.

During a six-month period, emails show Boiling Spring Lakes zoning staff did not require as-built surveys to be constructed upon completion of a building’s foundation, as required by a closed loophole that passed mid-June 2018. Eleven homes were constructed over this time frame, according to city records. At least one was completely constructed before the city realized an encroachment had occurred but fell into a compliance grey area because construction began prior to the UDO change. (Port City Daily screenshot/Courtesy Google Maps)

Though it was less than a foot shy of the 10-foot side setback requirement, the new residence’s final survey clearly indicated an encroachment issue; the city’s planning and zoning administrator, Nicole Morgan, informed City Manager Jeff Repp of this via email.

Morgan’s Dec. 21, 2018 email also indicated a short-term but systematic administrative issue: her staff had been requesting as-built surveys after all construction was completed and “immediately prior” to the issuance of Certificates of Occupancy — a violation of the UDO’s closed loophole. Between July and December 2018, 11 new homes were constructed in the city over a time period that included Hurricane Florence (when construction slowed) according to the city’s new home construction report.

“I think it is important that we require [as-built surveys] at the foundation, in order to avoid situations such as this one,” Morgan wrote.

Repp approved Morgan’s request to approve the Zoning Compliance Certificate via email the same day, according to records provided by Repp (view the records in their entirety at the bottom of this article). On Jan. 3, Repp signed the Zoning Compliance Certificate, which included a note that states, “9.28 ft. Side Setback Approved.”

In emails to Commissioners provided by Repp, Repp summarized a consultation he had with the city’s attorney about the issue, stating the city had “nearly no” legal exposure.

Auger said his biggest concern was the risk the noncompliance could impose on the current owner (Brunswick County Habitat for Humanity, according to Brunswick County Property Records) should they choose to refinance or sell the property.

It is not immediately clear if the city notified the property owner or its neighbor of the existing encroachment (or, if they did, how this was communicated).

In March, Repp wrote to Commissioners to address the legal concern: “The City MAY have to provide a future seller/buyer a letter advising them that the City would not be filing suit to bring the property into compliance if a future buyer requires a survey or reviews the file on this matter.”

The approved noncompliance was never referred to the Board of Adjustment.

Section 9.1 of Boiling Spring Lakes Unified Development Ordinance. approved June 2018, closed a development loophole that left open the possibility of nonconforming structures being completely built-out. (Port City Daily screenshot/Courtesy Boiling Spring Lakes)

Both Auger and Stewart were dissatisfied with the city’s response to the issue.

“You can’t change the rules and go back and grandfather people into the new rules,” Auger said. “So basically if it’s something [Repp] wants to enforce, he does, if it’s something he doesn’t want to enforce, he covers it up and changes it,” he said.

Signed off

By trade, Auger is a construction contractor, who said he is more familiar with proper development procedures than his elected counterparts (in fact, Auger helped build Boiling Spring Lakes City Hall before he was elected, according to Commissioner Barger).

Stewart, the city’s former mayor and previously an electric contractor himself, lead the questioning of the noncompliance issue with Auger in at least two private meetings with Repp.

When confronted about the issue in a meeting this summer, both then-Commissioners Stewart and Auger said Repp told them he did not recall signing the documents. The Commissioners said they then pulled the Zoning Compliance Certificate with his signature out onto Repp’s desk. Auger said Repp looked like a “deer in headlights.” Stewart said Repp’s signature and lack of recall on the document struck him as odd but added it was a chaotic time after the hurricane and that it could have just as easily been an oversight.

Asked to respond to Auger’s accusations that Repp misled him, Repp said the former Commissioner has never brought these claims to him personally.

“In the two years that the former commissioner served and during which we had several conversations, he never once brought this subject up to me either in public or private on any ‘issues’ regarding dishonesty to either him or the Board and if such existed I’m sure he would have brought them up during public meetings of the Board,” Repp said in a statement Wednesday.

Repp also said Auger never brought information regarding an allegedly disgruntled staff to his attention.

Commissioners react

Later in the meeting, after Auger resigned, recently-elected Teagan Perry Hall and Tom Guzulaitis were sworn in to serve their first terms. Former Commissioner Stewart did not file for re-election (he said he was retiring after three terms as a commissioner and three terms as the city’s mayor) and former Commissioner Dana Witt was not re-elected.

After the meeting, the board took a new group photo, which now appears on the city’s website. Auger’s name and information has been removed from the city’s website; both Auger and Stewart said they lost access to their city email accounts after leaving their elected roles.

Boiling Spring Lakes Board of Commissioners took a new group photo after the early December meeting Commissioner Guy Auger announced his resignation. (From left) Commissioner Steve Barger, Mayor Craig Caster, Commissioner Teagan Perry Hall, and Commissioner Tom Guzulaitis. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Boiling Spring Lakes)

Reached for interviews, all sitting board members but Mayor Craig Caster said they were surprised by Auger’s resignation. “I wasn’t necessarily surprised. Disappointed, yes.” Mayor Caster, who was recently re-elected for a fourth mayoral term, said Tuesday.

“I think anytime somebody resigns from the board in protest it’s never a good thing,” freshman Commissioner Guzulaitis said. “I feel its better to work through these issues constructively.”

Hall, who said she was completely unfamiliar with the reasons behind Auger’s resignation, said the announcement was disappointing.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Barger said Tuesday. “I hate to see him go. It’s a difference in opinion and he chose to resign.”

Though Stewart was more diplomatic in his recollection of recent issues than Auger, Stewart shared many of the same underlying concerns with both Repp’s management and the noncompliance issue.

“I believe in the chain of command. So I directed all of my questions to the city manager. But I never got a clear and definite answer, particularly on that one item,” Steward said, referencing the noncompliance issue. “I was not satisfied. And Iʼm still not. I have yet to receive a clear and definite answer as to why that happened. It seems to fall on deaf ears.”

According to Auger, he and Stewart both wanted to terminate Repp while the other Commissioners did not. Stewart said he was not at liberty to discuss this information and added he felt Repp is valuable to the city, especially when it comes to rebuilding the dams, one of the city’s highest-priority needs.

“He excels in a lot of issues that the city needs right now,” Stewart said. “And hands down I think he’s the best person for the job right now.”

Jane McMinn, Boiling Spring Lakes’ clerk, said the city does not have any specific protocol to determine how to fill Auger’s vacancy. The exact steps will be determined by the new board’s direction in forthcoming meetings.

View city emails between Repp and Commissioners that specifically focus on the setback violation, provided courtesy of Repp:

March 2019 Emails-merged by Johanna Ferebee Still on Scribd

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