The Town Council conducted business April 23 for 22 minutes and 56 seconds after the special meeting-budget work session that morning had ended and Council members had returned from a closed session for the sole purpose stated on the agenda of adjourning, The Beacon has learned.
Only the word “adjourn” appeared on the agenda that was posted on the Town website and available at the meeting for action to be taken after the closed session.
During the highly irregular “extracurricular” 23-minute budget session, the meeting videotape reveals that the Council picked up where the official noticed meeting left off. The five-member public body voted on two motions, including one in which they unanimously agreed to submit by email a list of priority projects for budgetary funding to Mayor Tom Bennett before their May 7 meeting.
In the official meeting about the proposed FY 2019-20 budget, which The Beacon covered 4/24/19, the Council touched on the matter of project and funding priorities, during an extended discussion about long-range planning. But it reached no resolution.
In the other motion, Councilman Jim Conners moved to cancel the Council’s April 30 budget work session, whose scheduling was approved by resolution last December.
The usual majority of Mayor Bennett, Mr. Conners, and Councilman Christopher Nason voted in favor of cancellation, while Councilmen Fred Newberry and Gary McDonald opposed it. There was no discussion about a postponement.
The inappropriate impromptu 23-minute session, which has to be scrutinized in light of North Carolina’s open meeting laws, was held in front of only Town Clerk Sheila Kane, who is seen in the first frames of section 2 of the meeting videotape collecting herself and resuming her seat. (The videotape of the day’s discussions is divided into two segments, the second one of which consists only of the session that was not noticed in the agenda.)
Although Mayor Bennett is clearly speaking during the first 20 seconds of this tape section, his words were not recorded.
All members of the audience and all previously assembled Town staff, including the Town Manager/Budget Officer, the Police Chief, the Deputy Town Manager/Planning Director, the Finance Officer, and the Public Works Director had dispersed.
The Beacon learned about this “extra” session upon investigating how it was possible for a meeting cancellation notice to appear on the Town website the afternoon of April 23, when there had been no Council vote on cancellation during the official budget work session.
I emailed an inquiry to Town Manager Peter Rascoe, asking him to “please advise” how “a majority vote” for cancellation “was obtained,” when no vote had been taken in “open session.”
Mr. Rascoe’s reply was: “You may view the Council’s actions in its open meeting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcGu9RuTGEY&feature=youtu.be.”
When I pointed out in an ensuing email that he had not answered my question, he said: “Your email does not contain a question,” apparently not being familiar with the phrasing, “Please advise me.”
When I asked directly when the vote was taken, he replied: “During the special meeting of April 23, 2019.” But he failed to supply a time, which is the commonly accepted definition of “when,” or any context. I decided not to keep restating the question until I finally hit on phrasing that would compel his disclosure.
Mr. Rascoe was rude and unhelpful. Three times he referred me to the videotape. In response to my inquiry about how a majority vote was “obtained,” he answered: “You will need to research with any of the members of the governing board how a majority vote between themselves was obtained.”
Come again? You mean they didn’t just put their hands up after someone made a motion and someone else seconded it? And weren’t you there?
At no time did Mr. Rascoe–whose high-level municipal office vests in him a clear-cut responsibility to inform Southern Shores property owners/taxpayers, as well as members of the press, about public business–advise me that the motion and the vote to cancel the April 30 budget work session occurred after the closed session during the 23-minute add-on session.
The Beacon urges you to watch segment 2 of the videotape. You will learn what your Town Councilmen have to say, and what they really think, when they are relaxed and candid and don’t believe anyone is listening.
During the official, noticed budget work session, Town Councilmen Newberry and McDonald tried to commit the Town to long-range planning. Mr. Newberry brought up the same concept, which he characterized as “good business practice,” at the Town Council’s Feb. 26 planning session, but no discussion occurred among the four Council members who attended.
The Town Council did not hold its annual springtime retreat this year. The retreat is traditionally a time for planning.
Mr. Newberry repeatedly said he would like a “wholistic plan” for budgeting that would extend out over a period of years, not just “bits and pieces,” as he referred to piecemeal budgetary planning that is dependent on the projects supported by a Council majority in any given fiscal year.
Mr. Newberry suggested that the Town Manager to do an “analysis” of future projects that would include various “scenarios” for funding and scheduling them—an idea that was opposed by Mayor Bennett and Councilmen Conners and Nason, who said they did not believe such an analysis was Mr. Rascoe’s job.
These same three Council members defeated a motion that Mr. Newberry made to direct the Town Manager to develop a “proposed plan” for managing the funding of beach nourishment, walking trails, no-left-turn weekends and traffic reduction, building improvements, roads, and any other projects that “we foresee over the next several years.”
After the defeat, Mr. Newberry said, in frustration: “So you’re saying you don’t want to plan.”
The Beacon believes the exchange among the five Council members and Mr. Rascoe, who said of Mr. Newberry’s request for a proposed plan, “I’ve heard it and heard it for four years,” demonstrated a lack of fundamental communication, as well as unnecessary animosity.
While listening to the discussion, we thought that the public body would benefit from a mediator’s intervention—from someone who recognizes the disparate ways in which each participant thinks and can facilitate understanding among them.
In the unauthorized 23-minute session, Mr. McDonald spoke of “dysfunctionality” in the group, and Mr. Newberry actually suggested having a facilitated meeting for the purpose of planning—an idea that Mayor Bennett approved.
$1 MILLION FOR SOUTH DOGWOOD SIDEWALK
The same three elected officials who rejected Mr. Newberry’s motion for a proposed plan voted to appropriate almost $1 million from the Town’s General Fund (GF) unassigned fund balance for a five-foot-wide concrete sidewalk on South Dogwood Trail. (See The Beacon, 4/24/19.)
The GF pays for nearly all of the Town’s budget and includes monies to operate the different Town departments (administration, public works, police, code enforcement), to purchase fire-protection services, and to pay for capital improvements.
As The Beacon reported, the GF’s unassigned fund balance held $4,752,187, as of June 30, 2018, according to auditor Dowdy & Osborne. The auditor will provide an updated balance as of June 30, 2019.
These unassigned or “undesignated” funds historically have been regarded by the Town as reserved for emergencies related to storm relief, not for discretionary purposes, such as nonessential capital-improvement projects.
(In the 23-minute session, Councilman Conners brought up the possibility of applying some of these monies to a “tax rebate.”)
The Town Council has required by resolution that a minimum of $1.75 million be maintained in the GF’s unassigned fund balance for natural-disaster emergencies.
I thought Mr. Rascoe informed the Council last week that the auditor has advised the Town to maintain at least $3 million. Having now listened to the videotape of the meeting, which is of unusually poor quality, being impaired by a buzzing sound, I now know that Mr. Rascoe said it was his (“the Manager’s”) recommendation.
(Mr. Rascoe has a low, often inaudible voice that I find difficult to understand. The same is true of Police Chief David Kole and of the Mayor and members of the Council, at various times. All would benefit from speaking into microphones.)
Based on the videotape, I believe Mr. Rascoe reported the following engineer’s cost estimates for construction of the proposed South Dogwood Trail sidewalk:
$332,782.56 for the sidewalk section from the intersection of North, South, and East Dogwood Trails south to Fairway Drive;
$620,119.81 for the section from Fairway Drive to the cemetery.
According to the minutes of the Jan. 30 meeting of the Town’s Capital Infrastructure Improvements Planning Committee, the cost estimate offered then for the southern Fairway Drive-cemetery section was $664,000.
Mayor Bennett made a point of saying during the budget meeting that the sidewalk job would be done in two phases, with the first phase being the northern end. He left open the possibility that the Council could decide after phase one is complete not to do phase two, urging his colleagues to “be careful.”
Regarding opposition from homeowners who live on the east side of South Dogwood Trail, the Mayor said: “We could have a battle on our hands.”
Mr. Conners, however, adamantly advocated “doing the whole thing,” saying it was “critical” to link the community by sidewalk to the Kitty Hawk Elementary School so that children can walk to school.
The Beacon wonders if Mr. Conners, who lives on Duck Woods Drive, is aware that Southern Shores children take the bus to school. (In the 23 years that I’ve lived along the South Dogwood Trail/Hickory Trail route, I’ve never seen a child walk to school, but I’ve been stopped behind school buses many times. A bus drops schoolchildren off in front of their homes or at stops where they either leave their bicycles or meet a parent.)
Mr. Conners also analogized the objection that potentially dozens of homeowners on South Dogwood Trail might have to the devastation of their front yards, the destruction of dozens of trees in their lush woods, and the ruination of the character and calm of their picturesque street to the objection that he and several of his neighbors have to a new storm drainage system in front of his house.
Of the $1 million sidewalk construction project, he said: You can’t “hold it up” because of the objection of “five or six or whatever number of people.”
The Beacon believes that if the Town Council were to hold a public hearing about the proposed South Dogwood Trail sidewalk—coupled, perhaps with a hearing about cut-through traffic—Mr. Conners would discover that more than a handful of people oppose it. And not all live on South Dogwood Trail.
In his own analogy, Mr. Nason brought up the recent “horrific accident” on N.C. Hwy. 12 in Kitty Hawk that resulted in two pedestrian fatalities, suggesting that a sidewalk on South Dogwood Trail would protect pedestrians on it from a similar fate.
N.C. Hwy. 12 is a heavily traveled state thoroughfare with a 35-mile-per-hour speed limit. The 25-mile-per-hour South Dogwood Trail is a residential street, not a thoroughfare.
No traffic collisions resulting in death or injury have ever occurred on South Dogwood Trail, according to The Beacon’s research. In an informal survey of residents who live on or near South Dogwood Trail and were out walking Tuesday, The Beacon encountered no one who could recall even a fender-bender on the road.
During the 23-minute extra session, Mr. Nason was more candid about the freak nature of the accident in Kitty Hawk that killed a young couple from Virginia and admitted that having a sidewalk would not have prevented the tragedy. Mr. McDonald simply stated: The beach road is a “different animal.”
Relying upon his own anecdotal evidence, Mr. Conners said, “South Dogwood is even worse than the beach road.”
During the official meeting, Mr. Newberry said he thought a special meeting about the South Dogwood Trail sidewalk project should be held in order to give the public an opportunity to comment. Mr. Conners disagreed. No motion was made to hold such a meeting.
TRAFFIC REDUCTION ON CUT-THROUGH ROUTE
Along with the Mayor and Mr. Nason, Mr. Conners rejected, without comment, any attempt to relieve the stress, inconvenience, noise, and peril the cut-through summer traffic causes resident homeowners, as well as walkers and bicyclists.
The Bennett-Nason-Conners majority voted against a motion made by Councilman McDonald to include funds in the budget for no-left-turn weekends during the summer and did not otherwise suggest any relief.
How about two no-left-turn weekends during the first weeks of July? Or Saturday-only no-left-turn restrictions? No alternatives were suggested.
Similarly, no one on the Council mentioned trying well-known traffic-calming measures on South Dogwood Trail and other sections of the cut-through route, such as lower speed limits, more stop signs, speed humps, speed cushions, speed tables, raised pedestrian crossings, and other measures that have been brought up in public meetings.
After Councilman McDonald made his motion, the Council asked Police Chief David Kole for his opinion.
The Chief said that he would have to hire another full-time officer in order to staff the Hwy. 158-South Dogwood Trail intersection for such weekends and “guesstimated” a new hire would cost $120,000. He also said other expenses would run $6,000 per weekend, or about $60,000 for the summer.
No one on the Council questioned the Chief’s data or suggested ways to lower costs. Currently, the Town police department has a commitment to assist Kitty Hawk with traffic oversight at the U.S. Hwy. 158-N.C. 12 intersection in front of the welcome center.
Mr. Rascoe observed that the Town has no place to store the barrels that would be used to block the left turn at the Hwy. 158-South Dogwood Trail intersection.
The Beacon notes that a storage facility could be erected on the unused Town-owned lot on Skyline Road, if the public works department’s storage space is full. It is also possible that a nearby town, such as Kitty Hawk, would be willing to lend the storage space that Southern Shores lacks.
Town Manager/Budget Officer Rascoe will submit his proposed FY 2019-20 annual operating budget to the Town Council on May 7. He also will file a copy of the proposed budget with the Town Clerk, who will make it available for public inspection at Town Hall. The public may submit written comments about the proposed budget to the Clerk.
Mr. Rascoe will propose to the Town Council at its May 7 meeting that a public hearing on the proposed budget be held June 4. The Town Council must adopt a budget no later than July 1, 2019, the first day of the 2019-20 fiscal year.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 5/2/19