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.