The Beacon was surprised and, frankly, insulted when the Southern Shores Town Council took its first vote at its April 13 meeting to establish the two proposed municipal service districts for beach-nourishment funding and approved them, with a minor change, WITHOUT first:
- having any discussion about any of the issues raised by Southern Shores property owners in written and verbal comments to the Council;
- addressing the exclusion requests that were filed by three property owners—one of whom came from Richmond to present his case in person and was ignored—and were on the meeting agenda;
- saying anything to the dozens of people who participated in the March 16 MSD public hearing; and
- telling property owners when they will be setting the tax rates, assuming the MSDs are approved on the second vote.
Nobody on the Council even thought it appropriate to say a simple thank you to property owners: “Thank you, we appreciate the time you took and the effort you made to communicate with us. We respect your positions.”
Town Manager Cliff Ogburn referenced the fact that the Town Council had heard from numerous property owners, in emails and at the March 16 public hearing, and had had an opportunity to reflect on what it had heard. But no elected official spoke to any of the public comments.
We find ourselves asking of the Town Council: Who do they think they are, if they do not think of themselves first as public servants who represent the public’s interests and owe the public an explanation of all of their actions?
“Playing it close to the vest” is not an option here. Not when thousands of increased tax dollars every year are at stake, and people are worried.
Why did the Town Council reject the option of having one town-wide tax to pay for the 2022 beach nourishment project? It should tell us.
Councilman Jim Conners did not even bother to attend the meeting to cast a vote in the first of the two votes required to be taken on the proposed MSDs.
At the top of the meeting, Mayor Tom Bennett said: “Councilman Conners asked to be excused for this evening’s meeting, and I granted his request. He will not be here in person.”
In our recollection, Councilman Conners has never missed a Town Council meeting in his nearly four years on the Council. That he chose to skip this important meeting without offering a reason to the public, and that the Mayor also declined to explain his absence, is an insult to the Southern Shores public. Mr. Conners is an elected public official. He should feel a duty to explain his reasons for not appearing and casting a vote on this critical measure.
The Mayor’s peculiar phrasing, “He will not be here in person,” suggests that Mr. Conners may have been watching the meeting by livestream. If that was the case, that, too, should have been divulged to the public. If not, then the Mayor should have chosen better phrasing. Remote participation is an option for every Town Council member.
Believe it or not, we do not enjoy criticizing the Town Council—especially not after the Planning Board’s stumble last Monday. (The Planning Board, however, does not have seasoned lawmakers on it, and it is comprised of volunteers, not elected representatives.)
This Town Council is too often discussing important issues outside of a public forum and presenting their “consensus” as a done deal.
They may not be violating the letter of the N.C. open-meeting law—thanks to the wizardy of technology—but they are violating its spirit.
Cases in point:
1. Mayor Bennett expressed serious reservations at the Council’s Feb. 2 regular meeting about the scope of the 2022 beach nourishment project, and Councilman Leo Holland showed keen interest in what he was saying. The Mayor actually said he had been “agonizing” for months over how to handle the project. (See The Beacon, 2/5/21.)
No followup of these reservations ever occurred in public, however, because—poof!—they just disappeared. No more agony.
In the ensuing two-plus months, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Holland simply went along with the other Council members without saying a word to the public. They played no obvious role in the MSD discussion on April 13 other than to say “aye.”
Interestingly, the Town Clerk has not even posted minutes on the Town website for the Feb. 2 regular meeting, although she has posted minutes for two Council meetings that took place after the Feb. 2 meeting.
2. Councilman Matt Neal made it clear at a Council meeting in January that he was opposed to including “oceanside” properties that do not abut the beach in MSD-1 and that he would continue to voice his opposition, despite being in the minority.
Oceanside or eastside properties are those properties that are east of Ocean Boulevard, but do not have beach frontage. There are quite a few on or off of Ocean Boulevard between the Duck Road split and Hickory Trail.
Mr. Neal made a pitch early on for all of the properties on Purple Martin Lane, Mockingbird Lane, Sandpiper Lane, the end of Hickory Trail, and oceanside near the Duck Road split, being in MSD-2. (Full disclosure: Two of the oceanside properties near the split belong to family members of mine.)
Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey just as clearly told Mr. Neal that she saw no reason to differentiate such eastside properties from oceanfront properties. It appeared that he was going to have to do some serious convincing.
Thus, we were bemused when the Mayor Pro Tem led the charge at the April 13 meeting to amend the map of District 1 to exclude these properties, speaking in a halting fashion as if the exclusions were just occurring to her. (“If I remember correctly . . .”)
Are we to believe that Ms. Morey had no communication with Mr. Neal, and that they did not resolve their differences outside of public earshot?
Guess whom the Mayor Pro Tem asked to make the motion to effectuate this—along with a further change—and who seconded it? By April 13 Ms. Morey’s opposition to Mr. Neal’s position had transformed into fawning deference.
NO ONE SPOKE AT ONCE, AND NO ONE EVER SPOKE TO THE PUBLIC
Nearly 20 seconds passed after Town Manager Cliff Ogburn laid the foundation for the Town Council’s vote on the MSD ordinance before anyone spoke. It was the Mayor who broke the silence, but not to say anything substantive.
“Any thoughts on this, Council, that you want to share with us? Anyone?” the Mayor asked. “Elizabeth? Matt? Leo?”
Beat. Second beat.
“So, originally, um,” Ms. Morey began, haltingly, “MSD 1, um, I think, did not include some of those properties—ohhh (big sigh), let me see if I can get my geography straight . . .”
This “geography” is that small patch of land that includes the lanes we just mentioned.
If this uh-um-let-me-see-if-I-can-recall opening salvo by Ms. Morey and the exchange that she subsequently had with Mr. Neal were not planned, then Ms. Morey should see a neurologist about her memory.
Ms. Morey and Mr. Neal laid out exactly what the Town Council was going to do, and it coincided with what Mr. Neal had said all along. At least he was consistent and forthcoming.
Speaking personally, I found the discussion engineered by Ms. Morey, who could have plowed through the amendment, but insisted on deferring to Mr. Neal, Town Attorney Ben Gallop, and Mr. Ogburn, to be political theater. It offended me greatly, as an oceanfront property owner, as a voter, and as a longtime taxpayer and resident, who expects better from elected officials.
I expect elected officials to be directly responsive and accountable to property owners and to go on the record with their views. If I want to watch a staged production, I’ll go to an off-Broadway play and see trained actors.
Instead of asking for the Council’s “thoughts,” the Mayor might have taken the time to acknowledge Southern Shores property owners, especially those in MSD-1 who expect to take a big tax hit. But none of the four Council members was inclined to show any concern for property owners.
They were especially dismissive, we believe, of Tom Peabody, whose family first bought property in Sea Crest Village in 1959 and built a beach box on Sixth Avenue in 1984.
A non-resident property owner, Mr. Peabody came down from Richmond to plead his case in person for his property’s exclusion from MSD-2. He had a good argument that the northern section of the Southern Shores coastline does not need beach nourishment. That is what the Town’s coastal engineer said, and the Mayor pointed out at the Feb. 2 meeting. (But you cannot read the minutes yet.)
Unfortunately, Mr. Peabody labored under the misassumption that the Council would actually consider his request.
Before Mr. Peabody’s turn in public comments, Mayor Bennett reminded all speakers that they have only three minutes to speak and affirmed the “fact that this is not a question-and-answer period.”
Of course, the March 16 public hearing, over which Mr. Gallop presided, was handled the same way. No “Q and A.”
When does this Town Council ever engage the public in public?
At NO time during its discussion about changing the MSD-1 boundary—which was its only discussion about the MSDs before its vote—did the Town Council address Mr. Peabody’s request or those of two other applicants, who were homeowners on Ocean Boulevard and the Southern Shores Civic Assn.
The Beacon has confirmed with Mr. Peabody, who abruptly left the meeting in disgust after the MSD vote, that he has not heard anything from the Town about his request.
I am grateful that I did not waste my time writing an exclusion request, only to have it summarily dismissed by Mr. Ogburn who advised the Council if it made an exception for one property, then it would have to make an exception for others, and if it approved the ordinance, it would implicitly be rejecting the exclusion requests.
That does not cut it with us. Again, we ask: Who do they think they are if they are not public servants accountable to the public?
The Town has announced that the second vote on the ordinance establishing the two MSDs will be held at the Town Council’s May 4 meeting at 5:30 p.m. in the Pitts Center. The language defining District One now reads:
“All properties that abut the ocean beach of the Atlantic Ocean having an eastern boundary greater than or equal to 25 feet, beginning at the southern town limit and extending to the northern town limit.”
The new language exempts those eastside properties that Mr. Neal always wanted to exempt, as well as irregular “flat lots” with limited beach frontage.
For the text of the ordinance, see https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/ordinance-establishing-municipal-service-districts/.
NO WORD ABOUT THE BUDGET OR CUT-THROUGH TRAFFIC
Also disappointing to us was Town Manager Cliff Ogburn’s failure to say anything in his April 13 report about the filing of his recommended fiscal year 2021-22 budget and whether there will be a need for a general tax-rate increase. He also said nothing about cut-through traffic prevention.
Mr. Ogburn has previously said that he would submit his recommended budget to the Town Council at its May 4 meeting, but he did not confirm this, nor did he mention the scheduling of any budget workshops.
The two issues of most importance to most property owners in this town are taxes and traffic.
But no longer does the Town Council extend the public the courtesy of knowing well in advance when a budget workshop will be held and, therefore, when it is likely to discuss and vote upon tax rates and traffic mitigation. It changed the calendar this year, omitting workshop dates.
A preliminary budget workshop, purportedly designed to give Mr. Ogburn guidance, was held March 16, but there have been no public budgetary discussions since. By the time a “public hearing” is held on the FY 2021-22 budget, it likely will be the usual done deal.
We remind all Southern Shores voters that 2021 is an election year. We will be electing a new mayor and voting upon the seat currently held by Mr. Conners.
The Beacon asks you to cast about among the people you know to identify candidates who would serve the public in a forthright, honest, responsible, and transparent way.
Four years ago the voters rejected two candidates who were committed to conducting the people’s business in public. We should not make that mistake again.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 4/24/21