NAVASSA — Navassa’s divided town leadership assembled a quorum Thursday night to unanimously pass a budget and appoint a finance officer. The two measures were essential to resuscitating the town before its looming downfall.
Since June 3, a “closed” sign has been hung on the town hall, and there was no way to pay town staff following the former finance officer’s departure. At one point, it looked like the Brunswick County town could fall into the hands of the already burdened Local Government Commission, despite stabilizing its financial position.
Earlier this week, Treasurer Dale Folwell said he was hearing from people who wanted him to take over Navassa for five days to assist the town in adopting a budget and assigning a signatory. But he had no intention of doing so for town leaders who “refused to show up for work.”
“I call that enabling,” Folwell said. “These are local elected officials who need to do what they put their left hand on the Bible and raised their right hand to do as public servants.”
Previously, Mayor Eulis Willis and two District 1 council members — Ida Dixon and Ernest Mooring — were absent from consecutive meetings. Willis and Dixon previously cited personal reasons for their lack of attendance, but the mayor made quiet remarks about missing meetings after disagreeable votes were cast Thursday, indicating infighting was the basis.
Willis, who declined to comment for this article, was against the length of the agenda and certain items of business he did not want to vote on or discuss.
Earlier this month, town council members put aside differences and reunited for a regularly scheduled agenda meeting to review the schedule and informally decide which items to add or drop. The mayor and other council members struck several planned discussions, such as advertising for the vacant town administrator position.
However, in a split 3-2 vote, the agenda item was put back on at the beginning of Thursday night’s meeting. While there was some debate over returning it to the slate, the motion to put out the RFQ passed unanimously.
Consistently through the night, though, council continued to cast split votes, with the two previous missing councilors in the minority. The mayor only votes in the event of a tie.
Perhaps the most contentious issue was bringing back Claudia Bray, the former administrator, as a contractor of financial services while the town searches for her replacement. Bray will earn $3,000 a month to oversee payroll and budget work.
“Thank god she’s agreed to help us through this transitional phase,” said councilman James Hardy, who was appointed as the town finance officer earlier in the evening.
The mayor and others expressed frustration over not seeing the contract beforehand, and the town attorney said he also hadn’t had a chance to review it but assured he is a “quick reader” and looked over it during the meeting. The arrangement was referenced in a response letter to the Local Government Commission, explaining how the town intended to fix its predicament of lacking a finance officer.
“If you chose not to sign that letter, that is why you don’t know about the contract,” Hardy said.
Port City Daily obtained a copy of the agreement (shared at the bottom of this article), which was missing Mooring and Dixon’s signatures. There was no signature line for mayor Willis.
Hardy also resurfaced the topic of extending a job offer to a candidate who interviewed for the planner position in April and was still open to the role. Previously, the consensus of the majority was to not discuss the planning position until more prominent issues were unresolved. Dixon, one of the minority votes, indicated she was opposed because she and other council members never interviewed the candidate.
“We never get the chance to see any of the paperwork on these people. Those three make the decisions,” Dixon said after the meeting, referring to District 1 council member Jerry Lee Merrick, District 3 councilor William Ballard and Hardy, of District 2. “Those three make the decisions, and they sit here — one makes a motion, the other one seconds, the three of them vote on it.”
Council awarded bonuses to town employees with funds budgeted for salaries, which the staff members would have otherwise gone without. Every full-time employee will receive a bonus of $1,500 and part-time workers will receive $750.
“As a result of our inability to do our sworn duty and hold meetings, all of our staff have been held hostage of a paycheck,” Hardy said. “So, I was hoping that, if the board is willing — we can’t pay them for hours that they didn’t work — however, I think that if we give them some sort of bonus, it would be greatly appreciated to help them accomplish their daily needs in life.”
In another split vote, council agreed to reconsider the town’s governance style. Hardy said the last few months were proof a change is needed, and he wanted to request that the Cape Fear Council of Governments offer an opinion on whether a town manager style could benefit the town.
Navassa is a mayor-council city, meaning the elected officials have the choice to appoint a town administrator. The role is similar to a manager, but council delegates the responsibilities, such as whether the administrator should sign contracts or hire workers. A town manager’s powers are set by state law.
Navassa’s neighbor Belville switched from a mayor-council structure to council-manager style in 2007.
The town leaders were also divided over asking the Council of Governments to research equal voting representation. In Navassa, one district has three delegates. The other two districts — representing two sides of the town annexed in 2001 — only have one council member each. Hardy called it “gerrymandering,” an accusation challenged by Mooring and Willis.
“District 1 does have three times the amount of voters,” the mayor said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Hardy said. “That defeats the purpose of a district if you’re not going to have equal representation.”