Editor’s note: May 29, the Hope Mills Board of Commissioners met to hear the results of an investigation by the law firm Cauley Pridgen P.A. into the 2018 proposed sale of Lakebed #2, property owned by Hope Mills. The potential buyer was a nonprofit called Lone Survivor Foundation LSF intended to purchase town property for development of a retreat center for military service members suffering from the aftereffects of war. The investigation by Cauley Pridgen P.A. cost the town’s taxpayers $26,000 and took five months to complete. It absolved Hope Mills Mayor Jackie Warner and her son, Teddy Warner, of any wrongdoing in relation to dealings with LSF.
An excerpt from the official report by Cauley Pridgen P.A.: The specific scope of the assignment was as follows: The Hope Mills Board of Commissioners commissioned an investigation into (1) allegations of ethical misconduct by members of the town of Hope Mills Board of Commissioners (mayor and commissioners) and town staff pertaining to various sections of the town’s code of ethics and conduct for town officials; and (2) allegations of inappropriate protocols used by all parties during the decision-making process regarding all official correspondence and efforts to purchase/lease municipal property presented or submitted by the Lone Survivor Foundation to the town of Hope Mills during the period of December 1, 2017 to November 6, 2018.
The investigation by Jeff Thompson
James P. Cauley III, president of Cauley Pridgen P.A., is an acknowledged expert in municipal law. Cauley is a certified superior court mediator and has served as a legal instructor at Campbell University School of Law, Barton College and Wilson Technical College. He was a charter member of the Council for the North Carolina Bar Association’s Government and Public Sector section and is also a past chairman of that section.
In his report to the Hope Mills Board of Commissioners, Cauley repeatedly indicated he wasn’t exactly sure what the board wanted from him other than the lengthy written report. He made a live 50-minute presentation referring to his notes. He acknowledged that his findings would likely not satisfy everyone.
Cauley learned during his investigation that the mayor and some members of the board were at odds with one another.
A significant determination was that, in his opinion, Mayor Jackie Warner did not act improperly by not immediately informing commissioners of LSF’s interest in the property at Lakebed #2.
Cauley noted that typically, mayors and town managers learn of economic opportunities before the interest becomes commonly known. He said Warner’s initial awareness of LSF’s interest in the site and her presentation to the board in a closed meeting were insignificant.
Cauley noted Warner had worked well with boards of commissioners during her eight years in office, but that “when the new board took office in December of 2017, that relationship changed.”
He declared it appeared at times that the mayor’s endorsement of a matter would automatically trigger opposition by certain members of the board. Cauley did not name the members, but Mayor pro tem Mike Mitchell and Commissioner Meg Larson have been outspoken in their opposition to Warner. Cauley went on to say that “2018 was a time of transition into the new roles and board members’ expectations.”
In 2018, after squabbling during numerous public meetings and closed sessions, the town board decided not to entertain an offer from the LSF to purchase town property.
Cauley concluded that the mayor, board members and town staff did not engage in unethical lapses of judgment or intentional misbehavior. His overall conclusion was that allegations of misconduct by any party were unfounded.
Mayor Warner and Commissioner Edwards by Earl Vaughan Jr.
Cauley said his probe into dealings between the town of Hope Mills and LSF came down to two central issues.
“It is attributable to a combination of rookie mistakes and changing governance policies,’’ he said.
In short, newcomers to the Hope Mills Board of Commissioners unfamiliar with how cooperative government works over-reached in their jobs and developed a hostile relationship with Warner, who had been serving with previous boards since 2011 with no conflicts nearly as unpleasant as this one became.
Pat Edwards, the lone Hope Mills commissioner on the current board who consistently backed Warner following the new board’s arrival after the 2017 elections, said the new members of the board didn’t realize the board needed to work together and not venture out on individual missions.
Edwards said Warner has been active in her role as mayor, dealing with organizations and boards around Fayetteville and Cumberland County, representing Hope Mills and making numerous connections with other government leaders. “She knows so many people,” Edwards said. “She is the mayor and should be respected as the mayor.”
This issue has been deeply personal for the mayor, as attacks have been mounted not only on her but on her son Teddy Warner, who was involved with the presentation made by the Fayetteville Cumberland Economic Development Commission on behalf of the Lone Survivor project.
When Cauley exonerated Teddy of any hint of wrongdoing or standing to benefit from any of his work on behalf of LSF, the mayor said she was thinking the whole time that prayers are answered. “That is one thing we’ve prided ourselves on as parents and members of the community — character and integrity,’’ Warner said. “Do what you say and always be a good public servant.”
In defense of Warner’s son, Cauley noted that Teddy had nothing to gain financially from his role in the Lone Survivor presentation and that there was no mention of a benefit for him. “It appears he was performing his job duties as assigned, (with) the added personal incentive he genuinely thought he was bringing a coveted project to his hometown, a town in need of economic development opportunities,’’ Cauley said.
Cauley said his investigation showed previous boards gave Warner more freedom to exercise her leadership, giving deference to her acting independently as the town’s chief ambassador. That relationship began to change when the new board was seated. “It appears at times the mayor’s endorsement of a matter could automatically prompt opposition,’’ Cauley said.
A specific case in point involved the board’s reaction to its failure to renew an agreement with a professor at the University of North Carolina- Pembroke. The agreement involved contracting the professor’s students to create sculptures to be displayed at various points around town. Warner did not bring the matter of renewal to the board’s attention; it was reported the previous year, and board members knew they had to vote to renew the agreement to continue getting the art.
When Up & Coming Weekly published a story about the failure of the board to renew the agreement, the board called a special meeting to deal with the story. Commissioner Larson accused the story’s reporter of fabricating comments by the UNC-Pembroke professor. This reporter categorically denies that accusation and stands fully by the accuracy of the comment.
The comment the professor made about how the board handled the art contract basically repeated what Cauley said in his report about the board tending to reject anything Warner supports. The result was a vote of no confidence in the mayor by the board.
While the board has the legal right to set the limits of the mayor’s power, after Warner had a freer hand as mayor under previous boards, Cauley suggested the sudden switch in what the mayor can and can’t do could be a handicap for all involved.
“Their effectiveness in governing the jurisdiction depends entirely on the personalities involved,’’ Cauley said. “Hardball politics can make a board ineffective or dysfunctional.’’
Warner said her major problem in working with the current board has been that some of them don’t seem to understand the relationship between the mayor and the commissioners and the different roles they fill. “It’s not because it’s an ‘I’ thing with me,” Warner said. “Nine times out of 10, if television, radio, newspaper or anybody comes, they’re going to call the mayor. That’s just what happens.”
Warner’s parting words just before adjournment were from the heart, she said. “I don’t do anything without thinking first — is it right? Is it ethical?
“I don’t like the idea of my integrity and my character being judged. What you do sometimes in politics, it does hurt. But you do have to move forward. As mayor of Hope Mills, I try every day to make sure I represent Hope Mills the very best I can.’’
Warner said she does appreciate the current board and is doing her best to learn to work with each of them. “I hope we can move forward,’’ she said.
She then called on the Hope Mills community to end negative comments on social media. “We need your support now,’’ she said. “We don’t need to be torn apart anymore.’’
What’s next? by Elizabeth Blevins
Commissioner Jerry Legge was quick to accept Cauley’s presentation and said, “I think the lesson we’ve learned is we just need to move forward … and we need to do what’s best for this town.” His sentiment was echoed by Commissioner Jessie Bellflowers and by the mayor.
But Larson and Mayor pro tem Mitchell bombarded Cauley with questions and reiterated old accusations. Later that evening, Mitchell used social media to cast doubt on the integrity of the investigation, posting, “When ethics are no longer black and white but gray what will become of our beloved town?”
By the next morning, the situation had turned ugly. Mitchell blocked Sue Moody, a citizen of Hope Mills and Mitchell’s neighbor, from posting on his official Facebook page. The North Carolina State Supreme Court ruled in January 2019 it is unconstitutional for an elected official to block members of the general public from commenting on their social media accounts.
Moody, who attended the May 29 meeting, isn’t hopeful Mitchell or Larson can learn from the situation and move forward. Of their behavior at the meeting, Moody said, “The first question was challenging the investigator, simply to put into public record, again, the accusations when they’d already been addressed. They were defensive and aggressive; there was no spirit of working together for the good of the people. You can tell they both have their own agendas.”
The board has made a habit of spending an exorbitant amount of money on surveys, investigations and studies, only to discover they don’t like the results rendered. They follow up by discrediting the experts and the processes to invalidate those results, leaving them free to deviate in whichever directions they want to go.
For those following this investigation, it wasn’t a surprise when the mayor and her staff were exonerated. Nor was it a surprise when Mitchell and Larson refused to accept the results of the investigation.
Several members of the board need to issue apologies to a very long list of people and organizations.
Larson has publicly referred to the offer by LSF as the “LSF ordeal” on two separate occasions in the past month. She was also part of a conversation in which it was alleged the mayor’s son was offered bribes to facilitate the sale of municipal land to LSF. She and Mitchell have consistently used social media and their elected positions as a pulpit from which to judge and condemn the mayor and her family, and they’ve spent the better part of their tenure rewriting longstanding rules of procedure to strip the mayor of all authority.
They owe apologies to Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Robert Van Geons and his staff, to the Hope Mills staff at Town Hall and to members of the local media.
Finally, the commissioners owe an apology to the people of Hope Mills. After 18 months of reminding us it’s their sworn duty to be good stewards of our assets, it was difficult to watch them toss $26,000 toward an investigation based on fabricated allegations. And in the days that followed, they and their small group of supporters added insult to injury when they undermined Cauley and his investigation to justify their own bad behavior.
Despite the investigation, which had just cleared Warner of any wrongdoing, Mitchell and Larson chose to continue a one-sided feud. Fortunately, the voters of Hope Mills will render a final decision on this issue in November.