SPRING LAKE — Mayor Kia Anthony said Monday night that she will be asking for an informal meeting with State Treasurer Dale Folwell to discuss his decision to withhold the funding to hire Justine Jones as the next town manager.
Folwell, who is also chairman of the state’s Local Government Commission, cited statutory authority and the commission’s financial oversight of Spring Lake as his reasons for not approving the money to hire Jones in a news release issued by his office Thursday.
The Spring Lake Board of Aldermen met in closed session Monday, citing state law on personnel and attorney-client privilege, for a little more than an hour before returning to open session to announce that no action was taken. But Anthony said she wants to meet with Folwell to further discuss “the alleged ‘new and unsettling’ information that he has discovered and what procedures were followed.”
“I would like to know if this was a unilateral decision made by Treasurer Folwell or if this was a decision made by the LGC board,” said Anthony.
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, and other questions about missing town property remain unanswered, Folwell’s release said.
A state audit in 2016 also found mismanagement of the town’s finances.
“There is no room for error. Our primary goal is to save Spring Lake from drowning and return the town to financial health and operational stability,” said Folwell.
The town board voted 3-2 last Monday to appoint Jones as permanent town manager effective Oct. 24 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.
Voting to hire Jones on Monday were Mayor Pro Tem Robin Chadwick and Alderwomen Sona Cooper and Adrian Thompson.
Voting against hiring Jones were Aldermen Marvin Lackman and Raul Palacios.
Folwell said he could not support the decision of the board.
He also said the Local Government Commission and its staff did not approve the list of candidates for town manager or the selection of a specific candidate.
“Although our staff was silent on this hiring decision, on matters this important, we should never assume that silence is consent,” Folwell said.
Folwell cited concern about the potential for legal and financial liabilities and the potential adverse impact on town morale.
“The town does not need a distraction from the important work they are doing to return the town to fiscal health,” Folwell said in his news release Thursday.
Jones made news over the summer when she was fired as the town manager of Kenly after all members of the town’s police force resigned, citing a hostile work environment.
Four full-time police officers and the police chief, who had served in the town for more than 20 years, turned in their resignations. Joining the departures were the assistant town manager and a town clerk. Kenly is in Johnston and Wilson counties and has about 1,500 residents. Spring Lake has almost 12,000 residents.
The Kenly Town Council voted 3-2 to fire Jones in August. She was only 90 days into her contract for the job.
Before her short time in Kenly, Jones had sued her previous employer in Richland County, South Carolina, for gender and racial discrimination after she was fired there. Her suit was dismissed, according to news reports, and she ran her own consulting company, Strategic Innovation Partners, in northern Virginia and the District of Columbia from 2015 to 2020.
Fielding questions from reporters after Monday’s meeting, Anthony said the aldermen interviewed several qualified candidates for town manager. Asked about Jones' financial management background, Anthony referred to the work history on Jones’ resume.
According to her resume, which was obtained by CityView after the meeting, Jones cited her key accomplishment as overseeing a budget process in her one year as a management and budget administrator for the city of Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2012.
Folwell said in an interview Thursday 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.
Anthony said Monday she hopes to meet with Folwell this week to find out where the town can go from here and to take the initiative to keep the lines of communication open.
“We don’t want to communicate through the media when we can talk amicably among elected officials,” said Anthony.
So far, communication between Folwell and Anthony has been through news releases. Folwell issued his news release on Thursday afternoon, and Anthony released a response that night.
She said she hopes to speak with LGC officials and other elected officials, including members of the Cumberland County legislative delegation, so the town can “sort through this process and move forward.”
The next meeting of the Spring Lake Board of Aldermen is scheduled for Monday.