Most town and county residents take the staffing of their local government operations in stride, if not for granted, but recent events, both in Carteret County and most recently Kenly, N.C., have made this an everyday “watercooler” topic of conversation.
The sudden and total resignation of Kenly’s police department has made national news and represents a worst-case scenario that could easily occur in any locality, including Carteret County.
In the Kenly situation, the town’s police chief and his four full-time police officers, along with two town clerks, resigned July 20, citing a “toxic” and “hostile” work environment. The resignations occurred just two months after the town hired Ms. Justine Jones as its new town manager.
According to the town’s new release Ms. Jones was selected from a pool of over 30 candidates after a nationwide search. Among her accomplishments noted in that release were 16 years of municipal experience in Virginia, South Carolina and Minnesota.
Now the town’s board is holding closed sessions to consider what action is needed. In the interim, policing for this crossroads town in Johnston County is being provided by the county Sheriff’s Office, which obviously stresses the services from that law enforcement office.
Unfortunately, the subject of race is now entering the story because Ms. Jones is African-American and all the town staff who have resigned are white. But there is a great deal more to this story than race. Its genesis goes back to a lack of attention on the part of elected officials and by extension the voters, in the town of 2,000 residents that facilitated the development of a “toxic” and “hostile” work environment. Now the citizens are paying the cost.
This small town’s experience is deserving of notice in Carteret County as several local towns have recently undergone management changes that, on the surface, seem to be relatively mundane and will result in momentary interruptions.
But these changes can be life altering for the residents of the county, especially when they filter down to the police officer sworn to protect the public, the firefighter directing the firehose on a burning house or the EMS paramedic administering lifesaving procedures to an injured or sick patient. Then the issue of management and oversight becomes very real and very important to the average citizen who is paying the bill for these valuable services and is expecting professional results.
Three county towns are in immediate need of town managers. Cape Carteret is utilizing the services of interim manager Frank Rush, the former Emerald Isle manager who recently returned from several management positions in California. He is filling that town’s manager position recently vacated by Zach Steffey, who has moved to Franklinton.
In late June, Newport announced the mutual resignation of its manager Brian Chadwick, effective Sept. 2. Mr. Chadwick has offered to stay on until a new manager is hired.
Two weeks later, July 7, the Morehead City Town Council in a 3 to 2 vote, terminated its contract with Town Manager Ryan Eggleston, effective that day. His position has since been filled by interim manager Chris Turner.
The Cape Carteret managerial change came as a result of that town’s former manager being offered a better opportunity. The Newport and Morehead City managerial changes, both unexpected by the public, have occurred under a cloud of questions, with the respective town residents wondering what caused these actions.
Granted most citizens, taxpayers and businesses have little contact with the town managers and executive department heads such as finance director, human resources manager or even public works manager. But those positions can directly influence services, as seen in Kenly.
For a test ask anyone the name of the president and vice president of the U.S. and just to see how engaged the other individual is, name North Carolina’s governor and possibly the lieutenant governor. Then, once the conversation has started, ask for the name of the town manager or maybe even the county manager. And to be really aggressive, ask the name of the police chief, fire chief and the individual in charge of emergency services if it is different from the fire chief.
Most likely the person being quizzed, maybe even you the questioner, will draw a blank.
Because of the flood of information through mainstream media and social media the buzz is all about state and national issues. They are important, but it when it comes to life and death situations, and the moment a local citizen dials 9-1-1 to report an emergency, none of those national or state officials will be answering.
Who will answer and respond to the calls for protection of our homes and businesses from crime or fires? Who will arrive in the rescue truck to provide life-saving services?
Those are the questions that should concern every taxpayer in every town and county, including Carteret and its eleven municipalities.
The events of the past three months regarding the management of our municipalities and county services are clarion calls to voters that they are the ultimate arbiters or judges of what services will be offered. And through their elected officials they should demand transparency and accountability.
A “toxic” and “hostile” work environment doesn’t happen suddenly - it takes time to be nurtured and to fester, and then as in Kenly, it bursts and the residents are left wondering how and why.
While the town manager does have his or her hands on the controls of a town’s operations, it does not exonerate the elected officials from being actively and publicly involved. Nor does it excuse the town officials from being fully transparent about the circumstances of their decisions.
The fact that the town boards in Kenly, Morehead City and Newport have met in closed sessions to make decisions that ultimately and directly impact the lives of the taxpayers and voters is worthy of concern.
The time for the public to worry about local government management and to demand transparency is now, not next week or sometime in the future; otherwise there will be more experiences such as those in Kenly.