UPDATE (5:15 p.m.) — After a brief closed session early Wednesday evening, Pender County commissioners voted unanimously to hire North Carolina Representative Carson Smith as the county’s interim emergency management director, to serve a four-month period under terms discussed in the closed session.
“Carson will be the stabilizing force to lead Emergency Management through this pandemic,” Chairman George Brown said in a release issued after the meeting. “Our Emergency Management and Public Health both have vital leadership roles as they work together to help guide our county through this event.”
UPDATE (2:05 p.m.) — According to Commissioner Jackie Newton, North Carolina Representative Carson Smith will act as the interim emergency management director following the resignation of Charles Tear on Tuesday.
Smith served as the county’s emergency management coordinator in the nineties, leading the county through five hurricane disaster responses, according to a biography on the N.C. Republican House Caucus website. He was elected Sheriff of Pender County in 2002, serving that role until he was elected a state representative in November 2018.
BURGAW — Pender County has no current plans to declare a state of emergency in response to growing cases of Covid-19 across the state and the region.
The decision follows the resignation of Emergency Management Director Charles “Chuck” Tear on Tuesday, according to county spokesperson Tammy Proctor. Tear was brought in to replace long-time director Tom Collins in January, who retired in December. No reason was given for Tear’s departure; Proctor said she could not offer comment on personnel issues.
After a Board of Commissioners emergency meeting on Tuesday afternoon, commissioners also decided to continue county services during the Covid-19 pandemic, urging residents to call or email county departments before visiting county offices.
Commissioners held a closed session for the first 2 hours and 45 minutes of the meeting to consult with the county attorney “in order to preserve the attorney-client privilege between the attorney and the public body,” according to an agenda and video recording of the meeting. It was noted in the agenda that a closed meeting can be called “to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee.”
The audio portion of the recording, once the meeting opened to the public, is choppy and unidentifiable.
On Wednesday, Proctor addressed the reasoning of county leaders to abstain from declaring a state of emergency, in contrast to declarations from neighboring counties. New Hanover County issued a state of emergency on Friday, March 20, while Brunswick County issued its own on Tuesday, March 24.
“The reasoning is that this is a pandemic; it falls under the health department purview. They’re the leaders in this. And you really don’t need a state of emergency for getting any kind of resources right now,” Proctor said.
Asked whether the county would consider declaring a state of emergency to protect citizens from the novel coronavirus, rather than to get state or federal resources, Proctor said such an order would be issued once commissioners felt it necessary to do so.
“If we need to so that, we will do that, but at this time [commissioners] don’t feel it’s necessary,” Proctor said.
Pender County’s coastal towns, Surf City and Topsail Beach, each declared a state of emergency in the past week. Both declarations prohibited short-term rentals while closing public parking spaces and public parks. Surf City also closed its beach accesses while Topsail Beach closed all public parking at accesses to the beach and Banks Channel.
Moments later the county issued a press release announcing that the county would continue its services while requiring appointments for in-person visits in offices in Burgaw and Hampstead and urging residents to make payments using online resources on the county website, by mail, and by drop boxes.
“We are practicing social distancing yet not limiting county functions,” Chairman George Brown said, according to the release.
Pender County Health Department Director Carolyn Moser, who Proctor said would ultimately make the decision to declare a state of emergency in coordination with commissioners, said the measures announced on Wednesday were made to protect the public and county employees. (Moser later clarified that she has no such authority, although she could make a recommendation to commissioners.)
“Our goal is to protect the public at large as well as our county employees through these protective, common-sense measures,” Moser said.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Moser said the county health department had sent four tests to the state lab; three had come back negative and one was still pending. Others were being conducted by private providers and sent to private labs, according to Moser, and those results would be sent to her department only if they were confirmed positive cases.
Proctor said the county has no confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. New Hanover County had confirmed 10 positive cases of Covid-19, with the first ‘community transmission’ case identified on Monday. As of Tuesday, Brunswick County had posted to its website that it had also confirmed 10 positive cases.
“These heightened protective measures are in addition to the social distancing guidelines Pender County implemented a week ago. These steps were taken out of an abundance of caution and to help protect County staff and the public while also providing for the continuity of governmental services,” according to the release.
“With the assistance of the Board of Commissioners, I feel we have developed a solid plan to address the safety concerns of our employees and public related to COVID-19,” County Manager Chad McEwen said.
The county will continue to follow guidelines recommended by the county health department, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the release.
Editor’s Note: This is a developing story and will be updated once new information becomes available.
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