Commissioners Meeting, 17 August 2021, part four

This is the last of four installments covering the August 2021 board of commissioners meeting. Part one can be found here, part two here, and part three here. The full video with copies of the agenda and an ordinance that was adopted that night can be found here.

After three commissioners voted to remove vaccine information, supplied by the Randolph County Department of Public Health, from the town website the meeting moved on to a short discussion and approval of renewing our membership in the Upper Cape Fear River Basin Association.

Next, the board addressed designating a local official to be responsible for reviewing ABC permit applications. Currently, former police chief Larry Lewallen is listed with the state ABC board as our designee. Commissioner Parrish suggested changing the designation to ‘current police chief and his or her second in command’ (“Captain”), based on position rather than a named individual. The board agreed to that proposal.

Then Commissioner Parrish introduced two invoices from the fire department totaling more than $18,000.00. These were approved for payment without objection. Neither of these items is listed on the official meeting agenda and I do not recall hearing them added at the beginning of the meeting. It’s important that the town pay its bills on time, but it is also important that such business be added to the agenda properly so that interested citizens may stay informed.

Commissioner Cranford then reported on his departments: cemetery, library, and museum. He discussed the very real need for an updated survey of Sunset Knoll cemetery, where we continue to have issues with mislocated burial plots. He also reported that the new library roof has a leak or two. The contractor has been notified and will come out soon to address the problem. Mr. Cranford also requested verification that funds were allocated in the current budget for lighting upgrades at the library and reminded the board members that they had previously discussed using “covid funds” to cover the cost of a new roof on the museum building. It was unclear whether he was referring to the ARPA funds or some other resources that may be available for that purpose.

Next, Commissioner Hooker spoke about parks and recreation. She addressed a planned memorial to Billie Joe Caviness at Leonard Park, and a proposed partnership with the high school to replace some deteriorated grills and add some benches at Ramseur Lake in exchange for a donation to the school. Ms. Hooker also mentioned the possibility of a new restaurant coming to Main Street, to be operated by the owner of the Cafe on Loach Street in Asheboro.

I think we’d all welcome a new eatery on Main Street, especially one operated by folks with such a well-established reputation for great food, but I question the idea of using public money – grants or otherwise – to do it with, which is what Commissioner Hooker sounded like she was suggesting. Government has no business funding private enterprise unless it’s to deal with an emergency, such as disaster relief or research into vaccines to combat a global health crisis. New eateries don’t fall into that category.

Commissioner Hooker then turned to her pet project; she wants to build an RV park at the lake. I could be mistaken but I believe the location is at or near the old waterworks. That area is actually closer to Franklinville. It’s certainly within their ETJ, and to my knowledge, Ms. Hooker has not taken this idea to any of their officials. Even if this became a joint project with both towns involved it’s still a horribly irresponsible idea.

An RV park, especially one that discriminates against tent campers, as this one has so far been proposed, would be a money pit. It would take decades to recover the development costs alone, not to mention the price of operating and maintaining it properly long term. We have far more pressing needs. For instance, we have two completed sections of the Deep River Rail Trail within our corporate limits. Both remain underutilized because the bridge needed to connect the short section near downtown with the longer section that terminates near US 64, behind Tower Components, remains unbuilt.

Finishing the rail trail should be a priority for our parks and recreation department. There are certainly many streets in town in need of resurfacing and upgrades to curbs, gutters, and sidewalks, I’m pretty sure Powell funds (pdf) could be used to help defray some of the cost of building that footbridge. Such a bridge would cost far less than an RV park and do far more to create recreational opportunities for the people of this community.

When I ran for office here in 2015 I talked to a few people about the desirability of bringing a campground or a hotel to the area, and working toward becoming a place where people could stay for a few days while they visit the NC Zoo in Asheboro, or Seagrove potteries, or attractions in Greensboro and other places around the area. I still believe that if we finish the rail trail, part of a much larger planned state trail system along Deep River, and fostered the development of an arts & entertainment district downtown, one day someone might be willing to invest in a campground or a hotel, but those are private sector investments; not something a little town with a  history of poor record-keeping and inept self-management ought to be doing.

Next, the commissioners held a discussion about fees for satellite annexation and re-zoning. They adopted a $350 fee for annexation, with an additional $150, totaling $500, for re-zoning. The board then voted to remove Marjorie Casey, who has apparently moved out of town without leaving a forwarding address, from the planning & zoning board. The alternate member of that board will now become a full member and a new alternate will be sought. Here’s a link to the application for anyone interested in serving.

Next, the board voted on an ordinance regulating the operation of off-road vehicles in residential and other areas of town. It happened pretty quickly, so watch the video in the link above. A public hearing was held before the meeting and the ordinance was passed unanimously. Any person found in violation of this ordinance may be fined up to $100 per incident and enforcement is to be handled by Ramseur police.

I hope our police department will take a proactive approach to this and make an effort to inform the known ATV riders in the town of this change. Complaint-driven enforcement of ordinances like this only breeds animosity among neighbors and creates bigger problems requiring police intervention down the road. No one likes having to be the bad guy, but sometimes that’s an unavoidable part of keeping the peace.

The remainder of the meeting included a short presentation and Q&A with Brandon Emory from Alliance Code Enforcement, and a brief discussion about purchasing a Norway spruce tree to replace the Christmas tree in front of the municipal building, which mysteriously died a year or two ago.

Commissioners Meeting, 17 August 2021, part three

This is the third installment in a series of reports covering the Ramseur Board of Commissioners meeting that took place on 17 August 2021. Part one can be found here, part two here, and the full meeting as recorded by Commissioner Parrish, posted without commentary, is here.

After addressing old business carried over from previous meetings, the board moved on to new business for the remainder of the evening. The first new item on the agenda involved whether or not to refund a water/sewer deposit to a customer. This was necessary because the receipt proving that the deposit was paid has been lost (see the discussion about six years of poorly kept documents here). The decision was made to assume that the deposit had been properly paid and the board voted to refund the money.

Next, the board heard from Commissioner Parrish regarding a request from the Ramseur/Eastern Randolph Area Chamber of Commerce to utilize the ground floor of the former police department. The building, which also houses our museum, is in pretty bad shape due to years of deferred maintenance and neglect. Among other things, it needs a new roof very soon. The Chamber seeks to take over that space and hopes to begin making repairs inside soon. In exchange, the group offered to pay $50 per month to help defray any additional utility costs. A long-term lease was recommended and agreed to by the board.

The offending “flyer”

Next, appointed commissioner, Joy Hooker, wanted to talk about “flyers” on the town website. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, our county health department has led the way in fighting the spread of Covid-19 in our county. According to the latest numbers I’ve seen the virus has now claimed the lives of 248 Randolph County citizens, and forever changed the lives of thousands more.

The first vaccines received approval for emergency use last December and by January were being given to those most at risk: the elderly, first responders, and essential workers. As of this writing, millions of doses of at least three different vaccines have been administered across this country, along with millions more around the world, with very minor side effects in all but a few cases.

A few months ago case numbers began falling in many places as more and more people were getting vaccinated and the virus found it harder to spread, but we are still struggling to reach a 70% vaccination rate nationwide. Falling numbers gave many of us a brief false sense of security, but in Randolph County, as in many other rural areas, we haven’t yet vaccinated 40% of the eligible population. Too many of our neighbors believe misinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, so now we are all being asked to wear masks again to protect the unvaccinated among us. Meanwhile, new infections soar, almost exclusively among those who have refused to take a safe, effective vaccine.

Spanish “flyer”

From the start of the pandemic, our county health department has depended on county and municipal governments to assist them in getting information out to as many of us as possible. One way that happens is by posting information graphics on municipal websites, which our mayor has been doing, when asked, for roughly eighteen months. Until now not one commissioner has so much as blinked an eye about it.

That changed Tuesday night when Joy Hooker, appointed to a vacant seat on our board a few months ago, decided that the mayor should have sought permission before posting health department information, claiming that in doing so the mayor had violated the limits of her office. Hooker also stated that posting information supplied by the county health department amounts to town officials giving medical advice. Both of her claims are absolute nonsense and represent a clear threat to the health of every member of our community. Her ridiculous claims serve only to undermine a vital public health initiative that might mean the difference between life and death for one of our neighbors.

Backing Hooker’s position, Commissioner JC Parrish stated that if the town posts infographics from the health department encouraging vaccines, then we, our local government, are obligated to offer equal space to “the others”. When I asked Mr. Parrish to clarify who these “others” are, he stated that he referred to “anti-vaccine” advocates. Local governments are under no obligation to promote lies and conspiracy theories. We have Facebook for that!

Joy Hooker, proud anti-vaxxer

The only thing Commissioners Hooker, Parrish, and McIntosh (all three voted to remove the graphics) succeeded in doing last Tuesday night was to make themselves look foolish.

At this point, it might be helpful to back up and review a little local history. Several years ago a resolution was passed and later overturned, in an attempt to rein in now-former mayor Danny Shaw after he was accused by previous boards of overstepping the limits of his office several times.

In one case Mr. Shaw had offered office space in the municipal building to Mr. Parrish’s chamber of commerce without clearing it with the board of commissioners. In North Carolina, a mayor has no vote on matters before the governing board unless the board deadlocks. Then a mayor can vote to break the tie. In that particular case, the mayor was indeed out of line. He should have sought the approval of the board before taking that action.

The resolution to further limit the mayor’s authority was poorly written and did little more than reiterate what North Carolina statutes already say: the mayor’s job is to facilitate meetings, sign official documents such as checks and contracts, and be the public face of the town.

A mayor is essentially the chief communications officer for any municipality in this state. Making sure local, county, and other official information is placed where citizens can easily find and read it is definitely part of that job. To my knowledge, Commissioner Hooker did not live in Ramseur during the time when Mayor Shaw had his power struggle with the former board of commissioners. She likely has no first-hand knowledge of the incident or the resolution other than what was written in the newspaper or what she has been told.

Mayor Caudle did not ask permission from the board prior to authorizing those health department graphics being displayed on the town website, and she should not have been expected to.

For the last year and a half, since the beginning of the pandemic, not one commissioner ever questioned anything Covid-related that she asked our webmaster to post. Humans make mistakes. It’s part of being human, but in this case, Mayor Caudle was right.

The information from the health department needed to be shared with our citizens. So what if that little blue graphic convinces someone to get a vaccine that might prevent them or someone they care about from ending up on a ventilator, or dying, or stuck living out the rest of their life with incurable complications from Covid-19? As I told the board members Tuesday night at the meeting if they can’t put aside their petty personal conflicts and stand behind our county health department they have no business making policy decisions for this town.

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you what I think was really behind this sad little episode of middle school drama, based on personal experience and watching most of these folks closely for the last several years. Mayor Caudle and Commissioner Parrish have been close friends, officers (treasurer and secretary) in the chamber of commerce, and business associates for several years now, but at some point in the past few months they had a falling out.

This business with the website started just before 8 PM on Friday night, 13 August, with an email from Joy Hooker to our webmaster, Mr. Turner, demanding the removal of the health department graphics from the town website. When Mr. Turner politely refused, Hooker’s email was followed about thirty minutes later by one from Mr. Parrish, reiterating the demand, and stating that “three commissioners have agreed to this.” Mr. Turner, to his credit, informed both these commissioners that it has been his policy from day one to have no more than two contacts in any municipal office with the authority to request the addition or removal of content from the websites he manages.

As the public face of this town, any mayor will always be well within his or her rights to share official information from any county department, especially something that could be a matter of life or death. If Mayor Caudle was a vocal anti-vaccine advocate (I do not know her opinion on vaccines, I haven’t asked) and had refused to post any information from our public health department, you better believe I would be on her case the same way I am now going after all three of the commissioners involved in this nonsense.

What is perhaps most troubling about this whole sorry episode is the reference Mr. Parrish made in his email to Mr. Turner, stating that three commissioners had “agreed” to Hooker’s demand. If an issue is important enough to require approval by the board of commissioners, that vote should only be taken in public during a properly called and advertised meeting. Even when the board meets in a closed session, if they vote on an issue they are required to return to open session and announce the action taken. Voting by email, text message, or voice over the telephone outside a legally called meeting is ILLEGAL, and everyone on that board knows that.

Several months ago, when Tim Matthews and Tanya Kenyon were still members of the board, I’m told that voting illegally by text or email had become a regular practice among some of the members. Once any three had agreed to a proposal, it seems reasonable to assume that the issue at hand could then be slipped through as part of the monthly consent agenda, and passed with little if any discussion at the beginning of a meeting.

When one commissioner questioned the legality of this practice attorney Bob Wilhoit confirmed to the board that this manner of voting is indeed not the proper, legal way of doing public business. If nothing else it violates the spirit and intent of North Carolina’s public meetings statutes.

All of these officials, with the possible exception of Joy Hooker, were there when that was pointed out, so why are Mr. Parrish, Ms. Hooker, and, apparently, Mr. McIntosh, since he voted with the others to remove the vaccine information, still playing that game?

After the mayor had offered a compromise and a hasty vote was called, several citizens spoke out in favor of keeping the health department graphics on the website. Only Commissioner Tim Cranford represented the voice of reason that night. He voted against removing the health department’s message. I thanked him then and do so again now. The three remaining board members, McIntosh, Hooker, and Parrish, all voted to undermine our county’s public health initiative for no good reason.

I’ll cover the remainder of the meeting in another post later this week. Thanks for taking the time to read.

Commissioners Meeting, 17 August 2021, part two

This is the second in a series of reports on the Ramseur board of commissioners meeting that took place on Tuesday, 17 August 2021. The first report can be found here, and the full meeting video, without comment, can be found here. Most of the embedded links in the text will open the meeting video in a new window and begin at the appropriate time so you can watch the relevant portion of the meeting.

After hearing from Carol Akers about progress on the 2019-20 budget audit preparations and other problems in the town’s finance office the board discussed forming a steering committee to work on developing a new land-use plan, which is required by the state and must be completed by 1 July 2022. The board chose to table that decision until later in the meeting. When the discussion resumed the commissioners decided to establish the committee by including all members of the board of commissioners, the full planning & zoning board, the mayor, consultant Jill Wood (whom I assume will be a non-voting participant since she lives outside Ramseur’s corporate limits), as well as yours truly because I was in the room and was asked if I would be interested. That’s thirteen people, so far. I hope other citizens with an interest in land planning and development will volunteer to serve. That number of people, especially with so many members already serving as elected or appointed officials, seems a bit excessive, but I’m confident that after the first meeting (no date announced yet) this will sort itself out.

Next, there was a discussion about forming another steering committee, this time to oversee the spending of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds. Both Mr. McIntosh (public works & water/sewer) and Mr. Parrish (police/fire) indicated a desire to sit on that committee, which I understand will also include citizens like you and me. It seems to me like it might be inappropriate for these two commissioners to sit on both steering committees.

If you are a citizen residing inside the corporate limits of Ramseur and would be interested in serving on either of those committees my advice is to reach out to our mayor, whose job description includes being the communications point person for all town business and public initiatives. Make your interest known and I’m certain that will be relayed to the voting members of the board.

There was also a discussion about making Juneteenth a paid holiday for town employees, which I agree with in principle, but I wonder if it’s the right decision to make now from a financial perspective. I mean, yes, we need to celebrate Juneteenth and teach our children what it represents: the end of chattel slavery in the United States. Given the problems we have with accounting and record-keeping here, perhaps we should slow down and study how adding another paid holiday – which most people around here will not be offered any time soon – will affect the budget.

I know this sounds very nit-picky on my part, but if we’re in as big a financial and record-keeping mess as is been indicated elsewhere in this meeting, do we really have any business creating new paid holidays without a discussion of how to pay for it? There was zero discussion of that point, but a motion was made, seconded, and the board voted unanimously to make Juneteenth a paid holiday for town employees. Do we even have any African-American employees in town? Maybe one? Perhaps a better discussion might have been on how to bring a little more diversity to our local government.

There was also some discussion of the roughly $19,000.00 leftover from the now-defunct Ramseur Community Fund. As I understand it the leadership of the Ramseur/EasternRandolph Chamber of Commerce wants to take control of that money, but for reasons that remain unclear that organization is not qualified to receive those funds. The board of commissioners intended to have the Asheboro/Randolph Chamber of Commerce hold the money until such time as the Ramseur/Eastern Randolph Chamber can sort itself out, but it seems they keep hitting roadblocks.

The state appears to be requiring proof, in the form of official meeting minutes, showing when the board voted to close the Community Fund account and they could not be found, so the board had to hold another vote Tuesday night to correct that error. These are not minutes taken by a previous board and clerk. This happened within the past two years. Let me say it again: we need professional management in this town, not more unqualified officials depending on expensive consultants to bail us out aver few years.

Rather than give the Community Fund money to the Ramseur/Eastern Randolph Chamber of Commerce, I have a better idea. How about we divide the funds equally among every residential water/sewer customer in town and apply it to those accounts as a credit? In a town where roughly 25% of us live below the federal poverty level (census data), that would help a lot of families and be a much better use of funds intended to benefit the entire community.

The board also discussed selling a couple of lots on Roundleaf Road where one of the lots will require a septic system since sewer service is not available there by the wastewater treatment plant. The board voted to move forward with the sale.

Then we heard from Commissioner Hooker, who spoke about a thing called Makesboro, USA, a mobile 3D printing demonstration seeking funds to set up in town and show our students what is possible with 3D printing. Ms. Hooker stated that we are not in a position to offer the money being requested so that bit of the meeting and the meeting she and another commissioner had scheduled for Friday with the Makesboro people really just amounted to a waste of time.

Wouldn’t it have been better to just call the guy and tell him to seek funding somewhere else rather than waste his time on a meeting that will get him nothing? As a business owner that would not sit well with me. Just tell me the bad news so I can get back to work.

That concluded the old business portion of the meeting, so I’ll end this post here, and report on new business in the next post. Enjoy this picture of Ramseur Lake that I took a couple of years ago.

If you keep doing what you always did you’ll keep getting what you always got.

Howdy Ramseur, it’s been a minute since last we talked. Sometimes you just have to walk away and recharge the batteries or you run the risk of damaging the machine. I am fully charged today.

The other day I posted the video of our board of commissioners meeting, recorded last Tuesday night. I would encourage you to watch it all, but if you are not so inclined I’m here to help.

Early last year when I refused to accept payment, at the suggestion of several board members, for my time recording meetings I was replaced by Commissioner Parrish. I have no control over his camera, so if the videos stop being recorded and made available, I guess we’ll know why. I still have my old camera, and I haven’t forgotten how to use it.

Last Tuesday’s meeting runs just over two hours, not including a public hearing, not recorded, held before the regular meeting started. I sat down this morning and wrote up the narrative of what was done during the meeting. The resulting document was over 4,000 words long, and that’s before I began editing. When I edit words tend to multiply, so I decided to break things up into smaller more manageable chunks. The post below covers the first part of the meeting. The other parts will follow in the coming days or weeks, as time permits. 

I attended the meeting, recorded my own audio, downloaded the video from Facebook and stored a copy on my YouTube channel, and then watched it all again several times while taking notes. It’s a lot of work, this watchdogging thing. Thanks for caring enough to follow along. – TJH3

On Tuesday, 17 August, the Ramseur board of commissioners held their regular monthly meeting. After passing a consent agenda (a group of issues such as unavoidable expenses and reports from various departments upon which there is general agreement, passed as a group to save time), the board heard from the town clerk/finance officer Carol Akers, regarding progress on the audit of our 2029-20 budget.

Mrs. Akers spoke at length about problems she and her coworkers in the office have been dealing with in getting our financial accounts reconciled and ready to audit. A budget audit is required of the previous year’s budget. The state requires this every year. Carol Akers does the very best she knows how to do every day she’s on the job, but I think she’d be the first to admit that in her role as the chief financial officer for the town she is not as qualified as she or anyone else would like. That’s not meant to be a slur against Mrs. Akers at all; it’s a simple statement of fact that everyone involved in our local government knows by now.

According to Mrs. Akers (the video at the bottom of the page is set to start just before her remarks to the board begin), there are financial documents going back many years that no one can find. Prior to Carol’s taking over the role of finance officer, she states that our books had not been properly reconciled for six years. Yes, six. Years.

In short, our finances have not been properly maintained and books balanced since the day Freda Waisner retired from the job in 2015, near the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year. We’ve had no less than five different finance officers and several consultants in our finance department since then, and thanks to the combined incompetence and/or malfeasance of those individuals we now have six years for which no one will ever be able to say with certainty where all of our money went or what it was used for. To get to the root of this dilemma would take a team of several people working full time five days a week for at least a year, maybe much longer. That’s an undertaking we simply cannot afford on our own.

Since 2015 we’ve seen three elections, with a fourth now just a few months away, and at least two complete turnovers of the governing board, and NO ONE knows where all the missing records and documents might be. Some may even have been shredded by former officials, but at this point, that water has passed under the bridge and there’s very little chance of us ever getting it back. This has got to stop, this doing the same thing we’ve always done and getting the same rotten results

I have been advocating for a change to our town charter, from the mayor-council form of government to the council-manager form, for most of the last six years, since I moved into town. Ramseur needs stable, professional management by people qualified to do the job, and changing the charter is the only way to ensure that once made that change will not be overturned by the next incoming board of commissioners.

When the town experimented with a town administrator several years ago, that was the fatal flaw in the plan. A town with our form of government (mayor-council) can hire an administrator, but that person is subject to the whims of the elected board of commissioners and can be hamstrung by the board. Under a council-manager form of government, the manager is tasked with specific duties, some statutory. Having a manager creates a hierarchy wherein all department heads report to the manager who in turn reports to the board of commissioners.

Some people mistakenly believe that such a change takes power away from the board. I beg to differ. Hiring a competent manager frees the board to do what governing boards are elected to do: make policy decisions. While it’s true that sometimes we get lucky and get to elect our officials from a pool of people with police, fire, public works, or other relevant experience to draw upon, but that’s always going to be the exception. We might get five competent people who have time to dedicate most of each day to run a municipal department or three for $150 per month, but that’s not something we can bank on. Ramseur desperately needs a town manager. Otherwise, we will waste a lot of time every few years paying multiple consultants, as we are doing now, to sort out the mess made by previous boards. Lather, rinse, repeat.

With a town manager, we can make long-term plans going out five, ten, even twenty years down the road for the good of our town and see them come to completion. The way things are done now unless there’s a bill due every month, such as paying for our fire department, long-range plans are only as sustainable as the boards that pass them. Lose a couple of members and anything not legally binding can be dropped and forgotten almost overnight, like water line extensions up Highway 49.

I’d hate to be in the shoes of our mayor, commissioners, and employees in our office, working their butts off for months, if not years, to straighten out mistakes made over the past six years, only to see a couple of elections come and go resulting in divided boards composed of people unable or unwilling to educate themselves and get the work done, and all that hard work get flushed down the drain for nothing.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Some people insist that we can’t afford a town manager, but that’s a steaming pile of horse manure. This year our board of commissioners came up with roughly $135,000.00 to give raises to various town employees, and as I understand it, some want to go even further, suggesting things like an additional 15% raise for the police chief or an extra $4,000.00 for the clerk/finance officer. Those last two proposals sound a bit reckless to me, but aside from that $135k is more than enough to pay a town manager, and don’t try to tell me that money is only enough for one year. If we could budget that much for raises to existing employee wages this year, we’ll have to come up with that amount again next year, and every year from then on. A qualified town manager knows where to find and how to win grants and other sources of funding. That position pays for itself over and over again.

A few months ago I watched a bit of the county commissioners’ meeting where the recently retired head of our county health department was honored for her work. At one point the speaker pointed out that during her time in office the departing head of public health had increased the amount of grant money flowing into that department from less than $40k to more than $800k. That’s what qualified professional managers do; they know how to find the money and bring it home. There’s plenty of grant money out there to be had, but in Ramseur, we can’t currently qualify for most of it because, for one thing, we’re behind on our audits.

Ramseur desperately needs professional management if we ever hope to enjoy long-term financial stability and grow this town into the jewel on the banks of Deep River that it once was, and could be again. Without a town manager and the necessary changes to our municipal corporate charter that would entrench that position long enough to do any good, we are doomed to keep making the same expensive mistakes over and over again until one day the state of North Carolina will realize just how unfit we are to manage our affairs and will step in and either dissolve the town or mandate the exact solution I’ve been trying to sell for the last several years.