Friday, August 12, 2022

Navassa’s leaders are missing. Now a state commission is closer to taking over

NAVASSA — Three of six black swivel chairs at the front of Navassa Community Center’s main room remained empty through Thursday morning. A number of concerned residents from the 2,000-person community trickled in, but none were the mayor, and none were the missing council members.

It was the town’s fourth attempt to call a meeting since April and the town administrator’s second to last day on the job. Still, half of Navassa’s leadership were, once again, no-shows.

The three council members who were present waited until 9:15 a.m. before announcing that, despite several attempts to reach Mayor Eulis Willis, it did not seem he or councilors Ida Dixon and Ernest Mooring were coming. Without at least one more member of the governing board, it could not conduct any business by law.

“It is my belief that various members of council don’t want the town to move forward,” Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Merrick told the audience.

The leadership is clashing over which items are being placed on the agenda, including proposals to change the governance style and address possible gerrymandering. Asked if leaders would compromise by removing some controversial subjects, council member James Hardy said these are issues that residents have requested for years and that the current situation highlights the need for change.

There were other critical and time-sensitive matters to discuss and vote on. Since the town administrator, Claudia Bray, has resigned, council must authorize a new person to sign its checks. Until it does so, the town cannot pay bills or make payroll.

“People are allowing their personal feelings to get involved in taking care of business,” Bray said. “You’re not just affecting the three of you. If that’s where the battle is — you guys are not gonna get hurt. Because you’re still gonna get paid. You still got your jobs. But they’re risking the lives of their employees and their livelihood. And that’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. Because they didn’t ask for this. And I didn’t either.”

Navassa also needs to pass a budget for the next fiscal year by July 1. If the town does approve at least an interim budget, it cannot enter into any financial obligations.

“Even if you could get employees to come to work, for example, you would have no way to compensate them,” Local Government Commission Secretary Sharon Edmundson said over Zoom during the meeting. “If you kept the lights on at town hall, you would have no way to pay the electric bill.”

The Local Government Commission, which oversees municipalities across the state, is well aware of Navassa’s situation. It’s likely the commission would take control of the town’s finances as soon as next month, unless its leadership can come to terms, unite to take the necessary votes and successfully enact a budget.

Administrator Bray clarified that politics are the root cause of the town’s impending downfall. In fact, despite spending years on the state treasurer’s watchlist, the town’s financial position has improved. Had it not been for recent concerns, Navassa likely would not have made it on the 2022 Unit Assistance List, a spokesperson for the treasurer confirmed. The list tracks local governments in financial distress.

The town also successfully rebuilt its police department, hiring a new chief and staffing its positions this year. Now, those five employees are at risk of losing their source of income.

Port City Daily requested the town’s bylaws to determine whether there are consequences when elected officials miss meetings but had yet to receive a copy as of press. Hardy said it’s town practice that members will lose their monthly stipend if they miss up to three meetings.

The mayor and council members Dixon and Mooring did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday. Willis acknowledged Wednesday to Port City Daily he did not approve of certain items on the agenda, but he did not clarify which ones in particular.

“If you really love this town, like you say you love this town, and care about these citizens … then he would be here today to do what this board needs to do,” councilman William Ballard told the attendees. “But he’s not here, because he can’t have his way.”

One member of the crowd questioned if the mayor was “showing up to work.” Councilman Hardy said several meetings were rescheduled because Willis’ personal obligations take up his late afternoons and evenings.

But Ballard said he has a sick wife and still made arrangements. Hardy pointed out the mayor could attend virtually.

“It’s not an excuse,” Merrick agreed. “But I think the audience needs to know how we have been backward and forward to make this meeting happen, to accommodate all, but it’s not happening.”

It’s unclear how long town hall can survive under current conditions. The LGC does not have a set date for when it would step in.

“Quite honestly, we are extremely overcast at the moment as it is, but we will do what we have to do regarding the town of Navassa if it comes to that,” Edmundson said.

The LGC currently has financial control over eight municipalities. One, Pikeville, is close to regaining independence.

Some council members still expressed hope the town could rectify its situation. At this point, it appears there are only two options: It could advocate for a change in the rules of a quorum to only require the attendance of three people. Alternatively, it could persuade one of the unresponsive council members to vacate his or her seat.

Adjusting the quorum rules would require altering the town’s charter with support from state House and Senate representatives. Currently, it needs four of six officials to establish a quorum.

If a council member vacated a seat, citing an emergency or health situation, the number of members would decrease from six to five. Then, council would only need three members present to form a majority and could conduct town business with those who have been present. Hardy said the absent parties were asked to vacate “in the best interest of the town” but did not respond to the request.

He called the overall predicament “embarrassing.”

“It shouldn’t be this way,” Hardy continued. “And I apologize, sincerely, and Lord knows I wish there was something I could do to prevent it on my own. I’m pretty sure each of us up here feels the same way. But, unfortunately, it takes four for us to have a meeting. And that is the Achilles heel that we’re trying to climb.”

PREVIOUSLY: Navassa is in jeopardy again, soon without a town administrator, finance officer or budget


Reach journalist Alexandria Sands at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or @alexsands_

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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