Commissioner Grant B. Cheek: An Exceptional Conflict of Interest

I’ve been pondering the subject of this post for several weeks now, trying to wrap my head around it and digging for the facts. Sadly, some of what I’ve sought has been difficult or impossible to find, as will be explained shortly.

Sometime in February or March of 2016, Morganne Kirkman resigned from her position as Clerk of the Town of Ramseur. Around the same time, Commissioner Gary Hoover also submitted his resignation from the Board of Commissioners.

Bobbie Hatley was promoted to the Town Clerk position, leaving a vacancy in the municipal office. Commissioner Grant Cheek, who was elected in November of 2016, soon began volunteering in the office, assisting with water billing and payments.

The minutes of a pre-agenda meeting held March 7, 2016, contain the following entry: “Discussion was held on compensation for Grant Cheek for time worked in office to assist Bobbie Hatley while awaiting Clerk position being filled. Options for Grant were presented to the Board. Attorney Wilhoit was asked and he made point of population under 5,000 there are exemptions. Contract or temp position for Grant were discussed and Wilhoit advised that Grant should get together a proposal to present to the Board for the next Board meeting.”

According to the minutes of the board meeting held on April 11, 2016,  the following took place.

“Comm. Overman moves to go into executive session. Comm. Cheek seconds. Vote passes unanimously. Mayor and Commissioners, Bobbie Hatley, and Attorney Wilhoit are invited.

“Discussion held on applicants and salary for Water Billing Clerk. Comm. Cheek recuses himself from executive session.

“Comm. Overman moves to go back into open session. Comm. Hesselmeyer seconds.

“Vote passes 3-0.

“Comm. Cheek motions to recuse himself from the vote on Water Billing Clerk position.

“Comm. Overman moves and Comm. Hesselmeyer seconds. Vote passes 3-0 with Comm. Grant being recused.

“Comm. Overman makes a motion to hire Grant Cheek at $12.50 as the Water Billing Clerk. Comm. Hesselmeyer seconds. Vote passes 2-1 with Comm. Lineberry voting against.”

The water billing clerk is a part time  job. The rest of the time the employee in that position acts as Deputy Clerk, an assistant to the Town Clerk. Before Ms. Hatley was promoted to her position, she was listed in the minutes of a meeting as Deputy Town Clerk, so it is reasonable to assume that since Mr. Cheek was hired to fill the position when Hatley was promoted, that is a role he now fills.

Many in and around our community have questioned the legality and the wisdom of a sitting commissioner being employed by the department he or she manages. Some have pointed out that in most North Carolina municipalities an arrangement like this isn’t legal, due to potential conflicts of interest. Here’s the relevant statute:

§ 160A-158. Mayor and councilmen ineligible to serve or act as heads of departments.

Neither the mayor nor any member of the council shall be eligible for appointment as head of any city department or as acting or interim head of a department; provided, that in cities having a population of less than 5,000 according to the most recent official federal census, the mayor and any member of the council shall be eligible for appointment by the council as department head or other employee, and may receive reasonable compensation for such employment, notwithstanding any other provision of law. (1971, c. 698, s. 1; 1979, 2nd Sess., c. 1247, s. 17.)

The state of North Carolina makes an exception to its conflict of interest rules for small towns like Ramseur because we have very limited pools of talent to draw from. Mr. Cheek once told me that before he was hired there were several applicants for the job, but none were qualified or willing to accept the position at the wage offered.

I take exception to statement that we can’t find anyone more qualified. Grant Cheek has to speak into his smartphone to write everything from a business letter to a simple to-do list, because he can’t spell fourth grade vocabulary words.

Given the fact that our water department, which Commissioner Cheek supervises, ended up more than $130,000 to the positive in its fund balance for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, we could certainly afford to hire a more qualified applicant now.

North Carolina may provide a legal exception in the law that allows Mr. Cheek to hold his government job, but the Board of Commissioners should have never stopped looking for his replacement, because an exception is a stop gap; a temporary last resort. It’s what you do until you find a better long term solution.

No matter what label we put on Commissioner Cheek’s employment status with the Town of Ramseur, he fills a position that reports  to the Town Clerk. That makes Bobbie Hatley his boss, eight hours each day, five days every week. The Town Clerk is appointed by the Board of Commissioners, she is employed at their pleasure; therefore, Commissioner Cheek is one of her five employers.

Let’s stop and review: Bobbie Hatley is Grant Cheek’s boss, but Grant Cheek is Bobbie Hatley’s boss. That puts them both in an awkward working relationship to say the least, don’t you think?

About a month ago, the mayor had this to say on the subject:

The mayor doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a legal exception and a conflict of interest. The General Assembly isn’t saying there’s no conflict; they’re saying that because we’re such a small town they’ve made an exception to the rules for us.

Now, let’s go back in time a few years to late 2011. Back then there was a duly elected commissioner named Mike Campbell about halfway through a term he was serving on the Board of Commissioners, when suddenly he resigned. I’ve reached out to Mr. Campbell on several occasions, personally and through others, but he has not responded to my calls so I’ve had to put the puzzle pieces together as best I can.

According to my research, Mr. Campbell needed a job and wanted to take a position within our public works department. As far as I can tell he was not assigned, as a commissioner, to manage that department; he appears to have been on charge of the cemetery. On December 16, 2011, Mike Campbell resigned from the board in order to take that job at public works.

According to Mayor Shaw and our general statutes, it was legal for Mr. Campbell to be a town employee and a commissioner, and since he wasn’t going to be working for a department he managed, there was little if any danger of a real conflict of interest.

In 2011, our commissioners should have known about the exception in G.S. 160A-158, but just to drive the point home, here’s a link to a blog post on the subject, written by Frayda Bluestein, a professor at the UNC School of Government (not the League of Municipalities, as Mayor Shaw erroneously stated in the image above). The date on the post is January 6, 2010, nearly two full years before Mr. Campbell’s resignation.

I don’t know who told Mr. Campbell he had to choose between the office he was elected to serve and gainful employment with the town, but I do know that Danny Shaw was a member of that board. Shouldn’t Mr. Shaw have known about the exception and helped Mike Campbell retain his seat?

Mayor Shaw will tell you that in 2016 he lobbied against Grant Cheek being hired as our water billing clerk, and in this case I believe him. I’d be willing to bet that his reasons had less to do with conflicts of interest than with the role he may have played in Mike Campbell’s resignation. I hope Mr. Campbell will drop me a note or give me a call and set the record straight.

Commissioner Cheek, you have a choice to make if you hope to retain any shred of integrity you may have ever had. You can resign your seat on the Board of Commissioners and keep your day job, or you can give notice of your resignation from your office job and ask the board to find a new billing clerk. You most certainly do have a conflict of interest here, even if the state of North Carolina allows an exception to the rules.

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