Saturday, December 9, 2023

Navassa replaces James Hardy as finance officer as he resigns from council

James Hardy was noticeably absent from Thursday’s Navassa Town Council meeting, which would have been his last. He made a brief appearance at the end of the meeting when the council accepted his resignation. (Carl Blankenship/Port City Daily)

NAVASSA — James Hardy’s tenure as an elected official quietly ended Thursday night.

Navassa’s council meeting was brief, with little discussion and no controversy, after months of upheaval. Hardy was almost completely absent; he made a fleeting appearance at the end of the meeting, sitting in as the council formally accepted his resignation. First elected in 2021, his term wasn’t set to expire until December 2023.

READ MORE: Navassa councilman, finance officer James Hardy to step down next month

Hardy told Port City Daily he was debating whether to attend this month’s session, but he showed up just to make sure the council signed off on his resignation. He announced he was stepping down at the close of the October meeting.

Along with serving as a council member, Hardy was filling in as the town’s finance officer. The council called a special meeting Nov. 9 to appoint a replacement.

Draft minutes for the meeting show members went into closed session before unanimously appointing Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Lee Merrick as the new finance officer and Councilman William Ballard as budget officer. Hardy made both of the motions before Merrick motioned to appoint Councilwoman Ida Dixon as an alternate check-signer. Dixon was appointed unanimously as well.

Town attorney Norwood Blanchard said the finance officer is responsible for ensuring money has been set aside and budgeted for every expense.

“It’s not just signing checks,” Blanchard said, adding Dixon was named as an additional signatory because every check needs two people’s John Hancock. Merrick provided the second signature in the past.

Hardy said he was resigning because he felt he had sacrificed his character by being a council member and criticized the board for being dysfunctional. In his resignation letter, he outlined many issues, including claiming the board has disregarded the state general statute outlining conduct expectations for local elected officials.

Mayor Eulis Willis, surprised by Hardy’s resignation last month, said his absence at this week’s meeting also was unexpected. Yet, the mayor remained confident in Merrick’s abilities; the Navassa native has served on the council since 2007.

The town has a statutory obligation to fill Hardy’s vacant seat. Willis told PCD the town will likely call a special meeting to discuss next steps.

He said Navassa is also making progress on filling its combination town manager and finance officer position. He said he hopes to get “the target” off the council’s back soon, referring to the town’s at-risk status with the Local Government Commission.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell has repeatedly sounded off on the town’s finance issues and mentioned it in the same breath as East Laurinburg, a Scotland County town that was dissolved by the state’s Local Government Commission in July after years of financial issues.

The Town of Navassa’s current predicament stems from a chain of events triggered after manager Claudia Bray resigned June 3. Her departure led to a crisis in the town, as it tried and failed to bring together enough council members to form a quorum and appoint someone who could sign off on checks and town expenses. This resulted in a 10-day government shutdown that ended when Hardy, a former BB&T analyst, was appointed to oversee town finances on June 16.

A handful of small scandals followed. Hardy was arrested by Navassa police department for traffic infractions in July. He contested the validity and Brunswick County District Attorney Jon David dropped charges Nov. 8.

In August, it was revealed the town was having difficulty finding an accounting firm to conduct its annual audit. The Oct. 31 deadline for municipal audits has already passed and the report will likely not be completed until early next year. Hardy said he personally contacted a list of about 100 firms to find one that would be able to audit the town so late in the year.

Mayor Willis said Merrick and Ballard are aware the town is being watched by the LGC.

“There should be a lot of transparency going on for now and that’s probably good,” Willis said.

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