In late September of 2013, the Hope Mills Board of Commissioners voted to remove Commissioner Tonzie Collins from his elected position by way of an amotion hearing. It was a politically charged decision, and detractors were quick to point out the exorbitant expense ($33,000) and poor timing. Collins was already a registered candidate and the election was five weeks away. If the board didn’t vote him out of office, they’d have wasted a great deal of tax-payers’ money, and if he won re-election, the process and the expense were wasted.
If we’d had a recall ordinance in place prior to the amotion hearing, it could have been used to remove Collins with far less expense.
Immediately following the election, the people of Hope Mills waited patiently for the board to address the gap in accountability. But instead of addressing the issue, they ignored it, as if elected officials misbehaving were an anomaly.
Today, we find ourselves in a similar situation. Commissioners on this board have taken advantage of that gap in several ways.
Malfeasance is intentional conduct that is wrongful or unlawful, especially by officials or public employees. Misfeasance is conduct that is lawful but inappropriate. Nonfeasance is failure to act where there was a duty to act.
Here is a timeline of events involving the Hope Mills Board of Commissioners from the past year.
1. Commissioner Meg Larson shared outdated water surveys with board members, which swayed their decision in the question of whether to sell land to Lone Survivor Foundation.
2. Larson contacted staff at PWC to clarify the outdated surveys, without permission from the board.
3. Larson received an email from PWC staff informing her the surveys were irrelevant — and she withheld it from the public.
1. Commissioners Mike Mitchell and Larson pressured Rachel Cotter of McAdams Group to include the surveys in the $87,000 comprehensive parks and recreation survey commissioned by the town.
2. Larson and Mitchell wouldn’t let Rachel Cotter attend the Special Meeting scheduled to discuss a Public Hearing about Lone Survivor Foundation. They then canceled the Public Hearing because they had no information from Rachel Cotter regarding the parks and recreation survey.
1. Most of the commissioners refused to attend ethics training provided by Cumberland County and the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
2. Mitchell used social media to announce that McAdams Group told the board they needed to purchase more land for parks and recreation development. McAdams Group briefed the board in October there was enough land for a further 10 years of development and an additional 65 acres.
3. Legge accused citizens supporting Lone Survivor Foundation of illegally protesting to disrupt a town-sponsored event.
4. Mitchell sent an email to town staff indicating he felt it was inappropriate for the staff members to support a candidate. N.C.G.S. 160A-169 clearly states employees cannot be restricted from attending political meetings or advocating for candidates. Days later, Mitchell announced he had attended the very meeting he discouraged the staff from attending.
5. Commissioners Mitchell, Larson and Jerry Legge refused to let Mayor Jackie Warner attend a ceremony in Seattle, Washington, to receive the National Rehabilitation Project of the Year Award from the Annual Association of State Dams Safety Officials. Warner offered to pay for her expenses, and the Hope Mills Chamber of Commerce lobbied the board to reconsider. The board members did not.
6. Larson and Mitchell began investigating Warner and her involvement with Lone Survivor Foundation’s offer to purchase municipal land. They submitted a public records request for more than 450 emails to prove she colluded to bring the offer to Hope Mills.
The board never sanctioned an official investigation of Warner. It’s a violation of the laws governing closed sessions for the board to vote in closed session or to discuss other board members. And they’ve never voted on investigating Warner in open session.
In fact, until the Nov. 5 meeting, it was never even discussed in open session. At that meeting, Warner admonished the commissioners for harassing staff at the Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation with dozens of public records requests and insisted they cease and desist. She also accused them of using the town attorney to further their investigation by having him contact FCEDC with requests for emails, receipts and credit card statements. She also announced the most recent request from either a commissioner or the town attorney was Oct. 31.
Finally, though the board has a fiduciary responsibility to citizens, it has cancelled four meetings since August. The latest meeting was cancelled to accommodate Legge’s vacation. The schedule of meetings is set each November, so Legge had a full year to reschedule this trip. However, during the meeting at which board members voted to cancel, he bragged that he hadn’t missed a vacation in more than 20 years.
Because there is no form of oversight or consequence for the board’s bad behavior, it’s escalated. And we have every reason to believe 2019 will be a continuation of the same bad behavior we’ve seen in 2018.
The people of Hope Mills are left with one lingering question: If the Hope Mills Board of Commissioners can’t govern themselves, how can we expect them to govern our town?
Photo: L to R: Tonzie Collins, Meg Larson and Mike Mitchell. Photo by Elizabeth Blevins.