WILMINGTON — Last week both the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County announced their intentions to move forward with a proposed agreement that will determine the fate of Wave Transit and its board of directors.
But for Councilman Kevin O’Grady there’s a problem — City Council was not consulted before reaching an agreement with the county.
“Clearly, these are getting negotiated, they’re being finalized and I didn’t even know it was happening — either time,” O’Grady said.
Tensions were high on Monday morning during City Council’s agenda briefing after O’Grady questioned a joint resolution between the city and New Hanover County that would revamp Wave Transit — an agreement that O’Grady says simply gives in to the county’s demands.
Perhaps, most significantly it would, for all intents and purposes, ‘fire’ the current board members and replace them city and county employees. The current Wave Transit Board consists of volunteer citizens as well as elected (and previously elected) city and county council/board members.
But for O’Grady, who previously served for years on the Wave Transit board, the fact the city reached an agreement with the county before ever consulting council is problematic.
“I am concerned about the process that has been used here because I’m looking down the line here and I am not seeing anybody having much acknowledgment that they knew about this. How can this kind of discussion happen with the county to get to a concurrent resolution, and we are not informed?” O’Grady said.
Technically, the agreement is not official until both parties agree to it and hold a vote during a public meeting, which is typically just a formality.
“Once they [resolutions] come on here it’s really hard not to pass it because at 9:00 this morning, the county is probably going to pass it and we will look kind of foolish having a concurrent resolution and then maybe wanting to change it,” he said. (Note: sometimes the county does meet at 9 a.m., however, the county meeting is at 4 p.m. Monday).
The second agreement
For O’Grady, the new amendment for the interlocal agreement came as a surprise, so how exactly did we get to this point?
In late 2019, in a surprise vote brought forward by Julia Olson-Boseman, New Hanover County agreed to withdraw its funding from Wave. Following that, both the city and county leadership approved a resolution to ‘restructure’ the public transit system in the region.
According to a previous release from the county, “[the] interlocal agreement between the county and city will be rebuilt with new priorities, including a transportation model that: balances convenience with coverage, so routes are operated where there is the highest use and greatest need…”
The first agreement did nothing to change the composition of the board — but it was, again, an agreement O’Grady said was negotiated with the county prior to requesting City Council’s input.
Things changed when Wave Transit requested a $700,000 loan to prevent the suspension of services. A new agreement was drafted that allocated the additional funding to the transit service — but only after scrapping the current board.
The new agreement provides the $700,000 Wave requested (which it needs due to delays in grants) with the city paying $400,000 and the county chipping in $300,000 — but it does appear the county’s portion is contingent on its approval.
“My understanding is the county is not going to provide the $300,000 loan or advance expect through this mechanism that is on your agenda,” City Attorney John Joye said.
The move to rework the current board is not surprising, County Commission Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman in early January alluded to new management taking over at Wave.
“Our expectation — or my expectation — is yes, there’s going to be new management and a new board. Probably a board made of some of the people you see up here today,” Olson-Boseman said during a press conference.
“Did you keep the council in the loop that you were thinking of firing the board?” O’Grady asked City Manager Sterling Cheatham.
“We did advise the council once we came to an agreement with the county on how to proceed,” Cheatham responded, highlighting the fact that the city made arrangements with the county prior to consulting elected leaders in the city.
But for O’Grady, the agreement is as good as passed.
“You put us in a position that how are we going to say no? The county is going to pass this, this is exactly what they want,” O’Grady asked.
Cheatham said that he was focused on figuring out a way to keep the buses running.
“You should not have done this … I personally think this is a terrible resolution, but we’re like committed to it. It’s the end of Wave — as it’s existed — and it’s an insult to the people who are on that board” O’Grady said.
Other Councilmembers were less critical of the agreement saying that nothing is committed until the agreement is passed and that they had some previous idea that this would be a requirement.
“I was vaguely familiar based on the press conference that there is a lot of displeasure and that if something is not done then the county is not going to participate in a financial way to support Wave,” Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes said.
She went on to say that it is not the end of Wave instead, it is an attempt to save and improve the system.
While the substance of the agreement does appear to give O’Grady some concern, again he reiterated that his concern was with the lack of consulting City Council while entering into negotiations with the county. He even accused staff of intentionally leaving him out of discussions on the agreement.
“You left me out of this, and I think that was intentional,” O’Grady said to Cheatham.
Saffo attempted to address O’Grady’s concerns before being cut off by O’Grady himself.
“You left me out of this too, not until this came out in this agenda did I know about this … You got approached by Julia Boseman and you went off on this,” O’Grady said to Saffo.
One of the sticking points for O’Grady was the fact that the new agreement gives the county a 50% share on the new board, despite the fact the city is the primary local funding source for Wave.
“You know full well we are the senior partner in this operation, we pay most of it. So why don’t we have the majority of the board? You just conceded to the minority, who do not support Wave, who have spoken against it, who have repeatedly refused to fund it — they get half the board. You are wrong to do that, and you did not have that discussion with us,” O’Grady said.
“The chair of the county commissioner ran over here and made her demands, and in the end, she got everything she wanted. This is foolishness,” he said.