Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Blame it on the booze: Inside the showdown between Southport’s aldermen and ABC board

The City of Southport Board of Aldermen and the town’s ABC board have been at odds for months now over appointing a new member to its board. (Port City Daily/File)

SOUTHPORT — Months of delay appointing a board member. Suddenly deciding to increase board membership. Alleged favoritism. An op-ed accusing city leaders of disrespect. A workshop with state leaders. 

The City of Southport Board of Aldermen and the town’s ABC board have been at odds for months now. Aldermen have delayed the reappointment of a seasoned ABC board member — or appointing someone new to fill his spot — yet voted to increase its overall board membership from three to five. 

While the ABC board follows state guidelines, the local municipality where the store is located has the authority to appoint board members. 

After long-time resident William Davis’ term as chair of the ABC board ended in February, the city was tasked with either reappointing or replacing him. Davis has a 10-year track record on the board, desired to continue serving, and the ABC board supported his additional term.

However, the Southport Board of Aldermen held up the vote for four months. 

They have put off the appointment at three different meetings, first questioning lack of applicants; the ABC board is responsible for opening applications upon the end of a member’s term and making a recommendation to the aldermen on the best candidate. 

Aldermen then advocated for new membership, while also criticizing the transparency of the ABC board. 

Many cited a lack of understanding about their relationship with the ABC board, opting to attend a Nov. 3 joint workshop with an ABC Commission representative who could answer their questions and explain how the two should work in tandem. 

Now, after months of hindrance, the ABC board is back to square one: the reappointment of Davis, which appeared on the aldermen’s Thursday agenda. 

Without opposition this time, Davis was reappointed.

How did we get here?

After his term expired earlier in the winter, Davis told Port City Daily he submitted a letter to the aldermen in March asking to be reinstated as he’s done for all previous terms. 

This time was different though. Davis said the aldermen wanted to review all candidate applications before sticking with the status quo. 

The ABC board didn’t open applications until two months later. 

“People on the board stay on the board until they actually do an appointment or reappointment,” ABC board member Zach Zuehlke said, citing North Carolina General Statute 160A-62.

“All city officers, whether elected or appointed, shall continue to hold office until their successors are chosen and qualified.”

The ABC board received two applicants for membership, which isn’t a paid position but offers members a $150 stipend per meeting. 

“They were nowhere near as qualified as Mr. Davis,” Zuehlke said. 

ABC store general manager Todd Dunn, who acts as a de facto secretary to the board, explained further at the July 14 meeting. One applicant had only been a Southport resident for a year — though there is no requirement to how long someone needs to live in the town to serve on the board — and the other expressed interest as only to obtain any product they wanted through the ABC Commission. 

The members did not conduct interviews for the position, prompting the aldermen to delay reappointment and allow for additional submissions. 

“We follow standard job search procedures, which doesn’t mean everybody that applies has to be interviewed,” Zuehlke said. 

Southport Mayor Joe Pat Hatem clarified the board delayed Davis’ appointment due to concerns.

“Why was he just being reappointed?” he surmised of the aldermen’s questions. “Why was [that] their recommendation?”

The mayor, who was elected in 2019, doesn’t vote on board appointments, rather acts as a liaison between the ABC board and aldermen.

By the July 14 aldermen meeting, Davis’ appointment was back on the agenda. Dunn appeared as a representative to answer questions on behalf of the ABC board. He reported members still chose Davis.

Alderman Richard Alt, who was elected to the aldermen in 2021, questioned Dunn’s authority.

“The chair of the board is responsible for notifying everybody what’s going on with their board, it’s not the employee that’s responsible for doing that,” Alt said. “This has to be much more transparent now.”

ABC board member Angela Wadsworth addressed Dunn’s presence in an op-ed published in the State Port Pilot on July 28. Because it is the aldermen’s liaison that is responsible for bringing forth the ABC board’s nomination, Wadsworth said there was no need for an ABC board member to be present at all. Dunn said Hatem asked him to present the nomination, which was decided on by him, the mayor, and another board member. 

Some aldermen still were not satisfied. 

Also elected in 2021, aldermen Robert Carroll and Lowe Davis spoke out.

Carroll motioned to table the appointment until the aldermen “obtained additional information regarding the position.” Specifically, he requested further explanation on the committee’s roles, “including bylaws and other documentation.” 

Davis seconded Carroll’s concerns: “We haven’t heard very much about what the board itself does.” 

She also claimed there were no posted minutes from the ABC’s meetings and questioned why someone from the board was not presenting the recommendation to the aldermen. 

Dunn explained minutes were accessible upon request and he was in the process of updating the ABC board’s website.

ABC board members who spoke with Port City Daily indicated the aldermen could have been more informed if they had taken the time to educate themselves. 

“I can count the number of aldermen that has come to one of our meetings,” Davis told PCD.  

“If you’re doing a great job in your position, you should be rewarded,” Dunn told the aldermen in defense of restoring Davis’ term.

Six applicants had all been interviewed by the ABC board by July, but Dunn said none rose to the task. Speaking to the merits of Davis, he touted the store has increased revenue annually.

“We’re one of the most successful boards in the state,” Dunn said. North Carolina consists of 171 boards within the state’s ABC Commission. 

In the last fiscal year, the city received $621,000 in revenue. Per state law, the store is required to provide 5% of revenue to the police department and 7% to alcohol education rehab — the rest goes to the city. 

“[Davis] is a 73-year resident of Southport. He’s led us through financing, building the new store, getting it prepared, he takes care of all our employees really well. He’s just an all around good guy.”

Carroll argued the board positions have terms for a reason — ABC board members serve three years — to promote the turnover of members and allow for new leadership, in effect “bringing a new perspective.”

He also noted it would discourage others from applying if the board just continued to reappoint someone to the position “just because they are a really good guy.”

Southport Board of Aldermen have delayed appointing a new member or reappointing a 10-year member to the ABC board for four months until Thursday’s meeting. (Courtesy photo)

Growing from three to five

In addition to the back-and-forth the boards were embroiled in over appointing one regular new member, the ABC board will gain two new ones in the next few months. 

According to Hatem, around eight applications have been submitted and are under review, with a recommendation forthcoming at the aldermen’s December meeting. 

In the Pilot’s op-ed, Wadsworth hypothesized on some of the motives for why the  aldermen want to expand membership.

“This would seem to be a typical political response,” Wadsworth wrote. “Take a board that is functioning well and shove two more members on it to either satisfy friends of board members, or fulfill a promise made by an alderman to a constituent.”

In conversations with PCD, Davis and Zuehlke did not note any evidence connecting aldermen to the applicants, whose names they would not reveal. They also said the board had not received any formal complaints from the public. 

The mayor concurred, reporting the city hadn’t heard of grievances on the store’s operations, nor was he aware of any nepotism taking place. Though, he did add: “We’re a small town; everybody kind of knows everybody.”

Carroll admitted at the July meeting he recognized six applicants’ names that came in to fill Davis’ position.

“I know some of these people,” he said. “I’m sure they are all around good guys, too, but that’s not enough to qualify you to hold that position.”

Carroll declined PCD’s request for an interview.

Backed by alderman Davis, he continued to advocate for tabling the ABC chair’s reappointment.  

After a second meeting heading in the direction of no action, Hatem stepped in. 

“You need to make a decision on this,” he said. “You either reappoint him or you don’t; this is not tabled.”

In response, two conflicting motions appeared. Carroll suggested appointing one of the six applicants, Jim Poppy, while alderman Karen Mosteller approved of reappointing Davis. Neither motion was seconded and the board returned to the issue of tabling the discussion in a 4-2 vote. 

However, another motion was made by Carroll to increase the board membership from three to five, which passed unanimously.

‘I think we’re back on track’

When it came time to revisit Davis’ reassignment Aug. 11, it was removed from the agenda for again. Hatem explained it was to allow for both boards to conduct an informational workshop with state representatives from the ABC Commission and clear up uncertainties about process and protocols. 

It took two more months for the joint session to occur — with it being canceled once due to aligning everyone’s schedules, Hatem said. 

“There was no emergency,” he added, “nothing was gonna come to a halt.” 

On Nov. 3, Renee Metz, assistant general counsel of the North Carolina ABC Commission, went over the following basics: how to address favoritism and illegal business practices, what information has to be shared with the board of aldermen, and the alderman’s authority over the board and ABC store. 

ABC boards can be tricky, Metz confirmed. Still, she added, there is leeway in how much a local government is involved with its ABC board. 

State law requires the board submit the budget and annual audit to its local government for approval. While ABC board members are appointed by the government, employees of the store, including the general manager, are under the jurisdiction of the board. Any complaints of favoritism should be submitted to the Department of Labor, while criminal violations would be investigated by alcohol law enforcement. 

“I think we’re back on track,” Hatem said. 

Zuehlke said the workshop was helpful in that it gave direction to the aldermen. 

“But I still don’t know what their motivation was,” Zuehlke added. “I don’t know why they decided after 50 years to pick on the ABC board.”

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