HOPE MILLS — Some Hope Mills residents who have criticized Mayor Jackie Warner for blocking access to her personal Facebook page say she was not sincere in the apology she read at a Board of Commissioners meeting last week.
Former Commissioner Meg Larson filed a lawsuit against the town in April 2022 alleging that Warner violated public-records law when she used her personal Facebook page to conduct town business and communicate with residents.
The lawsuit also accused Warner of blocking Facebook users from her personal page, thus violating their First Amendment rights.
As part of a settlement agreement, Warner was required to issue a public apology.
At the town board’s Jan. 23 meeting, Warner read the apology that she and Larson agreed upon. Before reading it, Warner said that the attorneys in the case had prepared it.
Larson and others who were blocked on social media by Warner say they were not impressed with the sincerity of Warner’s apology. They also said she knew the laws governing how an elected official uses social media.
At the Jan. 23 meeting, Warner said that she controls three Facebook pages: a mayor’s page; a page for her business, Carleen’s of Hope Mills gift shop; and a personal page.
Warner said she thought that how she used her business and personal pages did not affect her mayor’s page. But she said she learned that if she blocks a person on her personal page, that person also would not have access to her mayor’s page.
“The things I would hide or delete were not what I consider public business,” Warner told CityView. “It’s more of derogatory comments toward myself. But either way, I did it.”
‘Not completely accurate’
In her apology, Warner gave her assurance that in the future, her personal Facebook pages will be properly distinguished from her mayor’s page, which will be used as an open forum.
“Over the past several years, I have hidden and deleted posts and comments and blocked people from Facebook pages that I use as a forum to interact with citizens on issues related to the town of Hope Mills in my role as mayor,” Warner read from the statement. “My statement has always been we’re moving forward in Hope Mills. This is behind us. We are moving forward.”
Larson was sitting in the front row as Warner read the apology.
“When she said she was unaware that settings on one page do not affect another, it’s not completely accurate. When I was on the board, she had been counseled several times,” said Larson.
Jesse Bellflowers, who served with Warner and Larson on the board from 2017 to 2021, said he, too, believes that Warner knew that blocking those who criticized her on social media was wrong.
Bellflowers said he watched the Jan. 23 meeting online.
“It was a prewritten agreement for her to read openly. I don’t think her heart was behind the apology as she read it,” said Bellflowers.
Bellflowers said Warner was briefed about social media use during his first term.
“Jackie knew as early as 2018 what the rules of elected officials were on Facebook. She was counseled on this. There was a lot of research done by our town attorney, Dan Hartzog Jr., and we reached out to the (UNC School of Government) for clarification,” Bellflowers said.
But Warner told CityView she does not remember any formal training about social media and there is no record of such training. Warner said board members go through ethics training yearly through the N.C. League of Municipalities.
“We did ask the league for advice in reference to multiple commissioners or elected officials being on a closed site on social media discussing town issues,” Warner said.
Both Larson and Bellflowers said they believe Warner started blocking people on Facebook after an outcry over the demolition of the Parish house, a historic property that was torn down in early 2020.
“She began hiding and deleting comments, which led to a lot of those people calling me and asking me as an elected official to do something and even put it on the town’s agenda for discussion,” said Bellflowers.
“To add insult to injury, she blocked, deleted, and hid postings from my wife, my daughter, and my granddaughter,” he added.
“She wants to say she did this because they were talking about family members, but that was not the case at all. Even if they were talking about family members, she still can’t do that, because she is an elected official,” Bellflowers said.
Bellflowers said he thinks Warner’s actions influenced the 2020 election.
“Going into 2020 right before the general election in the summer, I raised this issue again about blocking people. She was blocking, deleting, and hiding comments that I believe had an impact on the general election. This was on her mayor’s page,” he said.
As part of the lawsuit settlement, Warner had to produce a list of people she blocked on Facebook. But some town residents who said they were blocked said their names were not on the list.
Cindy Hamilton said she is one of them.
In September 2021, Hamilton said, she emailed Warner and asked to be unblocked from Warner’s personal page because the mayor was using it to post about town business.
“In my email to her, I did mention that the town attorney had made the comment at the (town board) meeting that what she was doing was illegal,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said she emailed the town attorney but did not receive a reply. Warner then gave Hamilton her personal email address as a line of contact, Hamilton said.
According to an email from Warner to Hamilton, Warner said: “Anything shared on my personal page is for my friends and family that I believe deserve better than the harsh comments that are on my campaign page which most often have no reference to the original post.”
Warner’s email added: “I appreciate your concern that you might be missing something important on my personal page, but you can find the same information on the town’s administration page. For any future concerns, I have given you my personal email.”
When asked about the email, Warner told CityView that she does not recall anyone asking her to be unblocked.
“I do remember messaging my email if the topics or comments were something I believe could be answered best by email or a phone call,” Warner added.
Ready to move on
Warner said blocking someone was never about disagreements on policy or town business but rather personal attacks and derogatory comments. She said several satirical social-media pages have been created to make fun of her.
The mayor said that currently, “no one is blocked, deleted, or hidden” on any of her pages and she’s ready to put the issue behind her.
According to an invoice provided by Warner, the town spent $3,025 on legal fees to defend the mayor in the lawsuit. Warner said the town board agreed to pay the costs.
Bellflowers said he thinks Warner should reimburse the town.
Larson told CityView that her lawsuit was about transparency in government.
“I think social media has become such a huge source of information. It’s instant information and easy access,” Larson said. “We need to hold our elected officials accountable and to be transparent and not to use any form of media to bully or alienate someone from discussions that are important to them.”
“This isn’t about me; it’s for anyone,” she added. “It's not just the Jackie Warners; it's every elected official. Social media is not going away.”