A little something positive.

Writing about problems facing Ramseur and the errors made by commissioner X, Y, or Z in any given meeting can be really depressing, and this blog is not and never was meant to be a personal attack machine. Four years ago, when I started this, questionable decisions were being made by several of our then-commissioners and I decided to shine a light on that. Some of those people chose to make it personal, so we all went down that road together. It got really ugly, and I didn’t like it, but I would do it all again the same way in the same circumstances.

Those of you who read these pages back then have probably noticed that almost all those articles are no longer visible. They’re all here, but I chose to hide them. Those people no longer serve our community as elected officials. In fact, one of those people has thanked me, on more than one occasion, because now that person is living a less stressful life and enjoying it. I see no value in leaving that sad chapter of our local history here where it can be found and dredged up for no other reason than hurting people.

I’m not here to “get” anyone. I’d much rather be spending my time playing music, painting, or playing with my grandchildren. I’m only here to point out that there are better ways to manage our affairs, and if a commissioner or the mayor, or even a town employee, depending on the circumstances, does something questionable or really stupid, I will shine a light on them. If you don’t want to see your name on this website, don’t do stupid stuff.

I re-watched the last two regular meeting videos today with one goal in mind: to find some positive things to tell you about Ramseur’s local government.

At the December meeting, all five commissioners voted to approve a resolution in support of the “Year of the Trail“. We’ve spent some serious money developing our segment of the Deep River Rail Trail, most of it, to my knowledge, from grants. Walking trails are great community assets, and this one will be even better once the state comes through with funding to finish it and tie all the other pieces of it together.

Another positive development of note is the return of local artists and artwork to our municipal building. Commissioner Brower has taken the lead on this project, beginning with a month-long display of artwork by local photographer Gloria Spinks in January, followed by a display of work by Darrell Williams this month. It sounds like the display area is not open to the public anytime the offices are open, so check with the office or the town website and be sure it’s open to the public before you make that long drive across town.

In December the board discussed costs and options for updating our water treatment plant to a chloramine-based process with Mr. Helton, our public utilities director. These changes will result in cleaner water overall and require less flushing at the end of the line on NC-22 south of town. The upgrades will also make our water compatible with treatment processes used by every other water operator around us, making it easier to work with our neighbors to meet the growing water needs of the eastern Randolph community. The upgrades will be expensive and take months to complete but are yet another step in the right direction.

Commissioner Parrish announced the award of a $35,000 grant to the fire department. He indicated that the funds would be used for purchasing new radios, and then the commissioner talked about a budgeted capital outlay of $62,000 to $65,000, but that only about $33,000 of that money will be needed. It was unclear whether this outlay was for the radios or for something else.

Our fire department, under the leadership of Chief Jay Ledwell, is in good hands. Chief Ledwell and his peers have learned where to find and how to win numerous grants over the years, and I thank them for their continued service to our community. You might have noticed that I don’t spend much time examining the particulars of fire and police expenses. That’s because I trust our fire chief and Police Chief Presley to know what they need and how to ask when a need arises.

I also try not to burden any of our department heads with requests for public records, and I ask for far fewer than I’d like to see most of the time. Their jobs are difficult enough, having to win approval from a committee for almost every decision they make and I hope that in the near future, we can streamline the chain of command so they all answer to a town manager.

Apparently, buzzards are still a problem, roosting on the water tanks. I like buzzards. They provide a valuable public service, cleaning up dead things that, left to rot, can become dangerous disease vectors, but if the birds are damaging the water tanks we need to find a way to keep them off the structures. Perhaps a wire barrier could be erected to prevent them from being able to roost, but I don’t know the rules, and turkey vultures are a protected species.

Captain Jessup gave a well-prepared presentation to the board regarding portable, radar-equipped speed limit signs the department wanted to purchase. The signs show drivers their speed and record the time of day and speed of each detected vehicle. In theory, this will alert drivers when they may be going too fast, and provide law enforcement with data they can use to deploy personnel more efficiently and issue citations to violators.

From what I gathered the cost of one sign and several mounts, which will allow it to be moved around town, was a bit under $4,000. The purchase was approved and the sign should be appearing soon on a street near you, along with a couple of sets of portable speed bumps. These are useful tools that will hopefully result in fewer drivers speeding through our neighborhoods. Money well spent.

That topic was followed by a report from Commissioner Cranford regarding the library, which the county government is in the process of taking over from us. This is an idea I began supporting several years ago when there was much debate over a new roof for the building. I understand that the town retains ownership and maintenance responsibilities for the building, and the county is handling day-to-day operations.

These are all positive steps toward creating a more modern, efficient, and responsive local government for Ramseur taxpayers. It is a little sad that the most animated discussion of the evening was about how to dispose of a piano someone donated to the library long ago. It is sadder still that so many of our commissioners, all members of the board for more than a year now, do not understand that there is a statutory process for almost everything the government does, including disposal of surplus property, but let’s not dwell on that today.

The discussion moved on to Sunset Knoll cemetery and a fence, installed in 2019, that leans badly anytime the wind blows. That is due to the fact that whoever built the fence didn’t install any support beyond the hollow plastic posts stuck in the ground. It too will be sold as surplus property on GovDeals.Com.

During one of the meetings, there was a discussion about library funds. Government is complicated, and certain funds have to be kept separate from others, such as the enterprise funds for water and sewer, the Powell funds that help us maintain our streets, and Hinshaw funds, which I can’t find a reference to anywhere online other than in Ramseur budgets. I might have this wrong, but it seems like the Hinshaw funds were privately donated to the town sometime in the past, invested and the interest earned earmarked specifically for our library to buy books. Rules must be followed.

In parks and recreation news, Commissioner Kearns presented the board with a $22,000 quote to get the tennis courts at Leonard park repaired and resurfaced. No action was taken, but it sounds as though that maintenance has been neglected too long and now the courts are unfit for use, and there’s a popular thing called pickleball that uses a similar playing area and, apparently, there’s some demand for that.

Maybe resurfacing the tennis courts is a good investment, maybe not. I’m not in a position to say one way or another, but it is a shame that they haven’t been maintained. Now we face another big expense to fix something that might have been preventable with regular inspections and maintenance; things a town manager would keep up with no matter who we elect to sit on the board every other year.

Finally, the town will soon be fully switched over to the new “Southern” accounting system they’ve been working on for a few years. This should result in better, more reliable accounting, and therefore better budgets. It was also announced that the LGC (local government commission, a part of the NC Department of State Treasurer) has accepted our budget audit for the fiscal year 2019-20, and progress is being made on the audit for FY 2020-21. A thank you is due to all involved in getting that work done.

So, you see, not everything I write is bad news, and I am more than willing to give credit where credit is due. The problem is that there’s so much still being done wrong and those things need to be pointed out so they don’t get swept under a rug or forgotten. I’ve only reported on two meetings this year and I’m still not finished pointing out the major problems I see.

Now I have a question.

It’s said that the articles I write are full of lies. If you’re one of the people saying that, please drop me a note at RamseurWatchdog@yahoo.com and tell me what part of what article I’ve written is a lie. I might miss a detail or make an assumption once in a while based on incomplete information, but every word I publish here is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth as I understand it. Why would I lie? That would destroy my credibility. What good would that do me or anyone else? What would I accomplish if I published a document with fake numbers or anything else in it? I’ll tell you what. Nothing.

Planning boards and boards of adjustment are not the same.

We’re doing these things wrong here in Ramseur, and I’m about to show you how, but first, we need to make sure we all understand what a quasi-judicial decision is.

Quasi-judicial decisions involve the application of ordinance policies to individual situations. Examples include variances, special- and conditional-use permits (even if issued by the governing board), appeals, and interpretations. These decisions involve two key elements—the finding of facts regarding the specific proposal and the exercise of judgment and discretion in applying predetermined policies to the situation. Since quasi-judicial decisions do not involve setting new policies, the broad public notice requirements that exist for legislative decisions do not apply. However, the courts have imposed fairly strict procedural requirements on these decisions in order to protect the legal rights of the parties involved. Quasi-judicial decisions are most often assigned to boards of adjustment, appointed by the governing board.

The critical part to remember is that quasi-judicial decisions are legal decisions that can wind up being examined and either upheld or overturned in a district or superior court, and things have gotten ugly and expensive either way if we find ourselves in court.

The governing body of the Town of Ramseur is the board of commissioners. By statute, the board of commissioners is empowered to appoint a number of subordinate boards; among them are the planning board and one called the board of adjustment.

Eight years ago or so those two boards were made up of the same members, but one day a question came along that required a quasi-judicial hearing from the board of adjustment, and along the way to the hearing someone realized there was a problem.

It turns out that there was a clause buried in statutes that said the planning board could offer a preliminary forum for review of quasi-judicial decisions, which they had already apparently done, provided that no part of the forum or its recommendation be used as a basis for the deciding board. That complicated things.

The statute has since been updated with similar, if not identical language, and incorporated into 160D – 301, as we will see below.

So the planning board went to the board of commissioners and said, “Hey, we’re not allowed to do this.”

Well, the board of commissioners had to get that decision decided, because money was involved and time is money, and since so few people in Ramseur have time or enough interest in managing an enterprise as complicated as a small town for a couple of hundred bucks a month or less, the commissioners quickly appointed themselves to be the board of adjustment.

Problem solved! Not so fast.

That solution worked because none of the commissioners had any conflicts of interest in the question being decided that day, and it’s worked a few more times since then, but it won’t work forever because some decisions a board of adjustment makes must be decided by a four-fifths (4/5) majority, and there’s also a statutory mandate for staggered three-year terms for board of adjustment members.

The other day when I was researching ETJ, I found a couple of sections in chapter 160D that apply specifically to planning boards and boards of adjustment, how they are to be composed, and what the function of an alternate should be.

The alternates our commissioners are constantly trying to recruit are supposed to be alternate members of the board of adjustment. They are not supposed to sit on the planning board, nor vote on planning board decisions.

See for yourself. The relevant sections of the statutes are copied below. Again, as with the last post, all bolding and CAPITALIZATION other than section headings are mine. Headings are linked to the source.

(a)    Composition. – A local government may by ordinance provide for the appointment and compensation of a planning board or may designate one or more boards or commissions to perform the duties of a planning board. A planning board established pursuant to this section may include, but shall not be limited to, one or more of the following:

(1)    A planning board of any size or composition deemed appropriate, organized in any manner deemed appropriate; provided, however, the board shall have at least three members.

(2)    A joint planning board created by two or more local governments pursuant to Part 1 of Article 20 of Chapter 160A of the General Statutes. *This part doesn’t apply to us.

(b)    Duties. – A planning board MAY be assigned the following powers and duties:

(1)    To prepare, review, maintain, monitor, and periodically update and recommend to the governing board a comprehensive plan, and such other plans as deemed appropriate, and conduct ongoing related research, data collection, mapping, and analysis.

(2)    To facilitate and coordinate citizen engagement and participation in the planning process.

(3)    To develop and recommend policies, ordinances, development regulations, administrative procedures, and other means for carrying out plans in a coordinated and efficient manner.

(4)    To advise the governing board concerning the implementation of plans, including, but not limited to, review and comment on all zoning text and map amendments as required by G.S. 160D-604.

(5)    To exercise any functions in the administration and enforcement of various means for carrying out plans that the governing board may direct.

(6)    To provide a preliminary forum for review of quasi-judicial decisions, provided that no part of the forum or recommendation may be used as a basis for the deciding board.

(7)    To perform any other related duties that the governing board may direct.  (2019-111, s. 2.4; 2020-3, s. 4.33(a); 2020-25, s. 51(a), (b), (d).)

——

Pay attention to sub-section (6) above. One of the statutory duties of a planning board is to “provide a preliminary forum for review of quasi-judicial decisions, provided that no part of the forum or recommendation may be used for a basis for the deciding board.”

Who or what is the deciding board? The board of adjustment!

  •  160D-302.  Boards of adjustment.

(a)    Composition. – A local government may by ordinance provide for the appointment and compensation of a board of adjustment consisting of five or more members, each to be appointed for three-year terms. In appointing the original members or in the filling of vacancies caused by the expiration of the terms of existing members, the governing board may appoint certain members for less than three years so that the terms of all members shall not expire at the same time. The governing board may appoint and provide compensation for alternate members to serve on the board in the absence or temporary disqualification of any regular member or to fill a vacancy pending appointment of a member. Alternate members shall be appointed for the same term, at the same time, and in the same manner as regular members. Each alternate member serving on behalf of any regular member has all the powers and duties of a regular member.

(b)    Duties. – The board shall hear and decide all matters upon which it is required to pass under any statute or development regulation adopted under this Chapter. The ordinance may designate a planning board or governing board to perform any of the duties of a board of adjustment in addition to its other duties and may create and designate specialized boards to hear technical appeals. If any board other than the board of adjustment is assigned decision-making authority for any quasi-judicial matter, that board shall comply with all of the procedures and the process applicable to a board of adjustment in making quasi-judicial decisions.  (2019-111, s. 2.4; 2020-3, s. 4.33(a); 2020-25, s. 51(a), (b), (d).)

——

The board of adjustment can be the planning board, but the planning board can’t review or make recommendations in quasi-judicial decisions to be decided by the board of adjustment.

Either way, the alternates our commissioners are always searching for belong to the board of adjustment, not the planning board. There should not be alternate members on our planning board any more than there should be alternate members of the board of commissioners allowed to sit, discuss, and vote on issues before that board when a commissioner can’t attend meetings. Can you imagine the butt-hurt such a suggestion would cause?

We’ve been doing this, and a lot of other business, wrong in Ramseur for a very long time. I had hoped, almost four years ago, that the new board we elected in 2019 would be smarter than the old board members they replaced, and I don’t think I’m the only one disappointed today.

Statutes dictate three-year staggered terms for the board of adjustment members, and since our commissioners serve four-year terms, that solution doesn’t immediately meet the state’s mandate. A five-member board of adjustment, separate from the planning board, needs to be recruited and properly empaneled soon.

Our planning board should remain a five-person board, assuming there are five people living in Ramseur who are interested enough in that work to show up consistently and get it done; if not then maybe that board should be reduced to only three members.

Until such time as ETJ is adopted by Ramseur, no members of any board or commission should reside outside the municipal boundaries of the Town of Ramseur. If ETJ is adopted, any new members of the planning board should be in addition to the resident members, and those appointments must follow the procedures laid out in chapter 160D-307.

Regular and alternate members of a board of adjustment should be recruited with the understanding that those duties are only required on an as-needed basis. One or two sitting commissioners could do double duty as board of adjustment members, provided the state’s mandatory staggered three-year terms are observed. Former commissioners, former mayors, or perhaps members of the ABC board could also be persuaded to serve in those capacities if no other qualified candidates step forward.

It would be smart to have a list of qualified, willing alternates available should a member of the board of adjustment need to recuse him or herself from a decision. They could be vetted for conflicts of interest on a case-by-case basis, sworn in as needed, sit through a hearing, help render a decision, and get on with their lives.