Monday, June 24, 2024

Local commissioner against funding Port City United claims suspended employee threatened him

Dane Scalise at a budget meeting in May, stating he doesn’t believe Port City United “achieved what it was established to achieve,” said he was approached Monday by a suspended PCU employee who used intimidation tactics against him. (Courtesy New Hanover County livestream)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — After Port City United made headlines in recent months, due to the arrests of two employees, one commissioner, vocally against the department’s continuation, says he engaged in an alarming incident by one of its suspended employees.

READ MORE: ‘Experiment reached the end of its term’: Commissioner wants PCU funds for schools

Dane Scalise told Port City Daily on Wednesday he felt threatened by what unfolded after Monday’s commissioner meeting.

“It was scary,” he said. “I’m still shook.”

Scalise referred Port City Daily to the incident’s details on the Wilmington’s Morning News with Nick Craig Tuesday where he told the host a Port City United employee attempted to intimidate him. By his account, Scalise was approached by a man in a Chestnut Street parking lot near Thalian Hall and the PCU headquarters. Scalise did not recognize the person, who took issue with his stance on the department. 

The commissioner has been vocal against PCU, calling it “an experiment that reached the end of its term.” He has gone on the record with media, posted on his own socials and explicitly stated during commissioners’ meetings he would prefer putting budget money toward core services — police, fire department, and schools, for instance — instead of funding PCU.

The department started in 2022 in response to the school shooting at New Hanover High School in 2021. Based on the Cure Violence Model, PCU is considered an “anti-violence department” — often hiring people who are gang-member adjacent, known as “violence interrupters” — to help reduce crime before it erupts into gunplay. 

The mediation and outreach division has been suspended for two months, after its supervisor, Stephen Barnett — who was part of the Bloods gang by age 15 — was arrested on the job. He has been charged with accessory to attempted murder in a shooting that took place in the Houston Moore housing complex in March. It left one person injured and the county terminated Barnett.

Ten employees went on paid leave, costing the county more than $36,000 monthly, though one has been fired since. Courtney Antwain McNeil, 24, was apprehended on May 9 and charged with 16 drug offenses and one firearm charge; he also was let go from his county position. McNeil had a Double ii Blood gang affiliation, according to WHQR.

Scalise detailed a man he did not know came up to him in the parking lot Monday and introduced himself as a PCU employee. The man allegedly said: “I’m one of those gang members.”

As they engaged in a conversation about PCU, the tone escalated, Scalise recalled. The employee alleged Scalise dehumanized him and demanded the commissioner to “not effing interrupt me” while making his case about the department.

Scalise said he perceived the interaction as an intimidation tactic, especially since the employee of the mediation unit had been suspended. 

“They’re not supposed to be on site,” Scalise told Craig. “I don’t know what this man was doing at the county facility, other than waiting for me, to give me a piece of his mind. I think it’s totally inappropriate, totally unacceptable. But it also just shows that I’m doing the right thing.”

The two parted ways, Scalise said, with the man alleging Scalise would not “be commissioner for long.”

“Ultimately, he ended his last parting comment to me, before we separated from one another, to ‘be safe out there,’” Scalise detailed. “I’m not really sure how to interpret these comments.”

The commissioner, up for re-election this year, told Port City Daily he filed a report with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and informed the county about Monday’s exchange. The county confirmed it’s looking into the incident.

“A formal Human Resources investigation was initiated the same day the allegation was received, in line with established policies and processes,” spokesperson Josh Smith said.

Smith could not reveal personnel details due to the investigation.

A police report verified Scalise’s account. He told police a “menacing tone” was used during the exchange, particularly when the man told him to “be safe out there.”

According to the report, the commissioner also told the police the man said he wasn’t trying to intimidate him but only “let him know what he thought about him.” But Scalise said he didn’t believe it and thought the man’s approach was intended to “absolutely” scare and threaten him, in an effort to pressure Scalise into doing something differently with the continuation of PCU.

Scalise would not speculate whether or not charges would be pressed should an investigation confirm his account viable.

“We’ll see what happens,” he told Port City Daily. “But I’ve got work to do. I’ve got to figure this budget out and that’s where my headspace needs to be.”

The county’s budget looms as commissioners must decide where to find money if they continue with PCU’s funding priorities. It’s primarily been paid for from American Rescue Plan funds, which run out this year. The county pledged $39.6 million over four years and has spent nearly $10 million on the department.

Scalise said at the county’s May 13 budget work session he is only focusing on what residents of the county need, not what they want, and favors doing away with expendable wants. He considers PCU in the latter category and told his fellow commissioners he supports cuts to the department.

“I don’t think this department has achieved what it was established to achieve,” Scalise said May 13. “Unfortunately, the news that has come out in the last few months has repeatedly indicated we need to bring the department to a close at the end of this fiscal year.”

In April, a budget work session determined roughly $5.4 million was put toward the department for five administrative employees ($568,000), 10 mediation and outreach employees ($946,000) and 13 employees in its call center ($1.1. million). It also utilizes $1.3 million for community resource coordinators, $352,000 for legal aid, and $250,000 for technical certifications, with United Way’s capacity building program at $1.2 million.

The county’s working budget at that time only accounted for administration and the call center — not the mediation and outreach team — to continue.

However, two weeks ago another scenario was presented not to fund PCU at all. No budget has been decided on yet by commissioners, but the county said its manager, Chris Coudriet, will present one to commissioners on May 30.

The county has also completed an internal review of PCU’s mediation and outreach unit since Barnett’s arrest, the impetus to suspend PCU county employees. Smith said staff is prepared to discuss it further with commissioners, but would not reveal details of the outcome to Port City Daily upon request. 

Scalise told Craig in the radio interview that this week’s tumultuous exchange hasn’t changed his mind on quashing the department.

“To me it shows, I’m doing the right thing,” Scalise said on the show. “While he attempted to intimidate me, I won’t back down. We shouldn’t be employing gang members — I can’t believe I even have to say that.”

[Ed. note: The article has been updated to correctly reflect Nick Craig’s last name; PCD regrets the error.]

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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