NAVASSA — The divided leadership of the town of Navassa assembled a quorum Thursday night to unanimously pass a budget and appoint a finance officer. Both measures were essential to resuscitate the city before its impending downfall.
Since June 3, a “closed” sign has been hung at the town hall, and there was no longer any way to pay municipal staff following the departure of the former finance manager. At one point, it looked like the Brunswick County town might fall into the hands of the already overstretched Local Government Commission, despite its financial situation stabilizing.
Earlier this week, Treasurer Dale Folwell said he was hearing from people who wanted him to take control of Navassa for five days to help the city pass a budget and appoint a signatory. But he had no intention of doing so for city leaders who “refused to show up for work.”
“I call it allowing,” Folwell said. “These are local elected officials who must do what they put their left hand to the Bible and raised their right hand to do as public servants.”
Previously, Mayor Eulis Willis and two District 1 council members – Ida Dixon and Ernest Mooring – were absent from back-to-back meetings. Willis and Dixon have previously cited personal reasons for their lack of attendance, but the mayor made low-key remarks about missing meetings after nasty votes were cast on Thursday, indicating infighting was at the root.
Willis, who declined to comment for this article, was against the length of the agenda and certain items he did not want to vote on or discuss.
Earlier this month, city council members put aside their differences and met for a regular agenda meeting to review the schedule and informally decide what items to add or remove. The mayor and other members of council began several planned discussions, such as advertising the vacant post of city administrator.
However, in a 3-2 split vote, the agenda item was postponed to the start of Thursday evening’s meeting. Although there was some debate about his return to the slate, the motion to release the request for the award passed unanimously.
However, throughout the night the council continued to vote split, with the two missing former councilors in the minority. The mayor only votes in the event of a tie.
Perhaps the most contentious issue was whether to bring back Claudia Bray, the former administrator, as a financial services entrepreneur while the city searches for her replacement. Bray will earn $3,000 a month overseeing payroll and budget work.
“Thank goodness she’s agreed to help us through this transitional phase,” said Councilman James Hardy, who was named the city’s chief financial officer earlier in the evening.
The mayor and others expressed frustration at not seeing the contract ahead of time, and the city attorney said he hadn’t had a chance to review it either, but did. assured that he was a “fast reader” and reviewed it during the meeting. The arrangement was referenced in a response letter to the Commission on Local Government, outlining how the city intended to resolve its lack of a finance officer issue.
“If you chose not to sign that letter, that’s why you don’t know about the contract,” Hardy said.
Port City Daily obtained a copy of the agreement (shared at the bottom of this article), which lacked the signatures of Mooring and Dixon. There was no signature line for Mayor Willis.
Hardy also resurfaced on the subject of extending a job offer to a candidate who interviewed for the planner position in April and was still open to the position. Previously, the majority consensus was not to discuss the planning position until more important issues were resolved. Dixon, one of the minority votes, indicated she was opposed because she and other board members never interviewed the nominee.
“We never have the chance to see the documents on these people. These three make the decisions,” Dixon said after the meeting, referring to District 1 council member Jerry Lee Merrick, District 3 councilman William Ballard and Hardy, of District 2. “These three make the decisions, and they are seated here – one makes a motion, the other second, all three vote.
The council gave bonuses to city employees with funds budgeted for salaries, which staff members would otherwise have gone without. Each full-time employee will receive a bonus of $1,500 and part-time workers will receive $750.
“Due to our inability to do our sworn duty and hold meetings, all of our staff have been held hostage to a paycheck,” Hardy said. “So I was hoping that if the board is ready — we can’t pay them for hours they haven’t worked — however, I think if we gave them some sort of bonus, it would be greatly appreciated to help them accomplish their daily needs in life.
In another split vote, the council agreed to reconsider the city’s style of governance. Hardy said the past few months have been proof that change is needed, and he wanted to ask the Cape Fear Council of Governments for an opinion on whether a style of municipal manager could benefit the city.
Navassa is a mayor-council city, which means elected officials have the option of appointing a city administrator. The role is similar to that of a manager, but the board delegates responsibilities, such as whether the administrator should sign contracts or hire workers. The powers of a city manager are set by state law.
Navassa’s neighbor Belville changed from a mayor-council structure to a council-manager style in 2007.
City leaders were also split on asking the Council of Governments to seek equal representation of votes. In Navassa, a district has three delegates. The other two districts – representing two sides of the city annexed in 2001 – have only one council member each. Hardy called it “gerrymandering”, a charge disputed by Mooring and Willis.
“District 1 has three times as many voters,” the mayor said.
“It’s okay,” Hardy said. “It defeats the purpose of a district if you’re not going to have equal representation.”
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