NEWPORT - The search for key leadership continues in Newport with the imminent departure of Interim Town Manager Ralph Clark.
Clark was hired in October and has 30 years of experience serving in management positions with several central and eastern North Carolina towns, including Morehead City, with work periods typically ranging from four to eight months.
During the council's most recent regular meeting held Nov. 10 in town hall, Clark indicated he would be leaving after only a single month on the job.
In perhaps what would be his final face-to-face conversation with the council, Clark also highlighted several critical issues noticed during his brief tenure.
His first concern was the town's inclusion on a violation tracker maintained by the Secretary of the Local Government Commission (LGC) known as the Unit Assistance List (UAL).
The LGC has existed since 1931 and was formed by the N.C. General Assembly to help municipalities manage their finances following the stock market crash of 1929.
According to public data, Newport is one of 142 municipalities statewide that have failed to stay current with their fiscal reports. The town's most recent year of audits approved was for 2019 when the town was deemed to be in a high-risk status for internal control issues.
State statutes require towns to have their accounts audited each fiscal year and to submit a copy of the audit report to LGC as soon as possible after the close of the fiscal year. Audit reports for counties and municipalities are typically due by Oct. 31.
If Newport continues to be found in violation, it is possible for the LGC to assume control of the town's financial affairs with the commission's staff serving as the town's finance officer.
Audits for 2020 have been submitted but are not expected back from the LGC until mid-December. The town's goal is to complete their 2021 audits prior to tax season, followed by 2022's audits by the end of the fiscal year.
"It's really hard to operate a business this size without knowing what your complete financial position is," Clark said to the town council. "Having an audit a year later doesn't tell you anything. It tells you what you had in the bank 12 months ago, and you don't have a clue what you have now. If you're going the wrong direction 12 months ago, you just went deeper."
Also noted was the soon-to-be departure of Newport's Director of Planning Laura Oxley who will be stepping back Dec. 15 from her role as a key figure in the development of the town. Clark urged the council to begin searching for her replacement as soon as possible, an endeavor that could cost thousands of dollars in advertisement.
The position holds extra weight for the town considering the expected driving factors associated with the Interstate 42 extension project.
The project will connect I-42 to Highway 70 near the Carteret County-Craven County border and is expected to bring a great deal of inland traffic and development to the coast.
The final concern voiced by Clark was a personnel policy issue related to "inconsistencies in activities that relate to travel approval and expenses."
Without mentioning any specific names, Clark said some of the things he noticed had bothered him.
"I've seen some strange things that if I were the manager, somebody would go home," he said. "You need to start looking at those things to see just what it is that you want approved, how much you want approved. What's a reasonable expense for a meal?"
Clark requested the future town manager work with the council to create firm policies with how personnel operate, as well as iron-out rules for town employees' vehicle use.
"You have no policy at all that defines who drives vehicles, where they can drive them, with what use and whatever else," Clark said.
As of Thursday, Nov. 17, the town issued a public notice for a special town council meeting with a closed session to take place Monday, Nov. 21.
Up for discussion will be the hiring of a new town manager and to approve the closed session's minutes, according to the town clerk.
Newport Mayor Dennis Barber explained the town received applications from 25 candidates, one of which has already been selected as a possible candidate to be possibly voted in on Tuesday. Barber also highlighted the need to find personnel to help in finance.
"We're a family in Newport, and a lot of times the family doesn't agree," Barber said. "Our only problem in the town is finding people once someone decides to resign. The retention side of it is like every other agency."