SPRING LAKE — The Spring Lake Board of Aldermen voted Monday night to appoint Fire Chief Jason Williams as interim town manager. He has served as the acting manager for the past two weeks.
Mayor Kia Anthony also announced that the town will be sending a contract to the Local Government Commission for Justine Jones to be the next town manager.
The board voted 3-2 on Oct. 10 to appoint Jones as permanent town manager on conditional approval of the contract by the Local Government Commission, the Board of Aldermen and the town attorney, and acceptance of the contract terms by Jones.
The decision was halted when state Treasurer Dale Folwell, who is also the chairman of the Local Government Commission, issued a news release saying he would not approve funding to hire Jones.
He cited past employment history, concern for potential legal and financial liabilities and the potential adverse impact on town morale.
During the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting, resident Reggie Thompson, who has lived in Woodland West for more than 50 years, said the board was wrong for trying to hire Jones as town manager.
“I know if Spring Lake is trying to grow, if we are trying to get out of hot water and trying to get out of the news, trying to hire someone who is constantly in the news and has been in the news before, is a big mistake,” Thompson said.
The mayor read a letter from resident Harold Belton. Belton stated that while he supported the LGC’s maintenance of the town’s finances, he felt that the town’s finances are not related to the hiring of the town manager and wanted to know why the hiring had been denied.
Folwell said in an interview earlier this month that the ability to budget and manage the finances of a large organization should be at the forefront of the board’s decision-making when selecting a town manager.
According to Jones’ resume, she has one year of budget experience and served as a town manager for three months before being fired from the town of Kenly. Kenly made national headlines when seven employees including the police chief and four full-time police officers turned in their resignations after Jones had been on the job for 45 days. They said she created a hostile work environment.
Anthony and town attorney Michael Porter said Kenly hired a third-party private investigator and it was proven that the claims of a hostile work environment were unfounded.
Prior to her brief employment in Kenly, Jones sued Richland County, South Carolina, alleging gender and racial discrimination after she was fired. In between, she spent five years operating her own consultant company.
The mayor said Monday night that the town was still in the middle of finalizing the decision for the town manager and it was waiting to hear from the treasurer’s office to see how it could proceed.
Anthony announced last week after coming out of a closed session at a special meeting that she would be seeking an informal meeting with Folwell to discuss his decision.
Folwell said Friday that no meeting had been set, but he welcomed Anthony to come to Raleigh for an open meeting.
After hearing a financial report from the Local Government Commission on Monday night, the board met in closed session for 45 minutes citing N.C. general statutes for personnel and attorney-client privilege. David Erwin, accounting and financial management advisor for the N.C. Department of State Treasurer and the town finance director, and Tiffany Anderson, the deputy finance director, joined the board in closed session. Porter, the town attorney, was not present at the meeting, but town staff confirmed he called in for the meeting.
The board returned from the closed session to announce no action was taken. However, the board moved to appoint Williams as interim town manager, and Anthony said the board would be sending a contract for Jones to the Local Government Commission for its action and response.
Anthony said the announcement two weeks ago by Folwell had derailed the board’s track to meet deadlines set out in its fiscal accountability agreement.
“This decision, this comment from the LGC, from Treasurer Folwell, has stalled that and we really want to stay on track with our fiscal accountability agreement,” Anthony said.
After the meeting, Anthony addressed reporters. She said the town was sending the contract forward because it had not received official word from the Local Government Commission outside of the release sent by Folwell two weeks ago. She said they were already past the contract negotiations with Jones and were submitting it forward to the attorney and the Local Government Commission for approval.
The Local Government Commission took over Spring Lake’s finances in October 2021 amid concerns of potential budget deficits, longstanding fiscal disarray and an investigation of missing money.
State Auditor Beth Wood recently found over $500,000 in misappropriated funds by Spring Lake.
A state audit in 2016 also found mismanagement of the town’s finances.
When Anthony was asked if she had spoken to Jones, she said she spoke to her a week ago and Jones was still willing to accept the position.
Anthony also responded to questions regarding Jones’ experience related to financial management, budgeting and town manager experience and whether she was the most qualified candidate from the pool of six who applied.
“We vetted our candidates fairly and she proved herself to be the most qualified candidate from the batch of people that applied to this position,” Anthony said.
She said the board will be waiting to hear from Folwell and the Local Government Commission.
“If we are asked to move forward with another candidate, please be patient with us,” said Anthony. “We genuinely want the best for this community.”
Jami McLaughlin covers Spring Lake for CityView. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.