Thursday, April 7, 2011

Balderdash! Poppycock! Tomfoolery! The NHC Commission Saga

Author's note: I hesitate to write this now because the next great chapter in the pageantry of our elected county officials' shenanigans will be visited upon us shortly; as has been the case day after day for over a week now.

It all started with an interesting email exchange. Commissioner Brian Berger kindly requested all information and scheduled meetings from county staff regarding the county's non-attainment issue. The first response came two days later, and informed Berger of a meeting that was to take place that very day on the issue. Berger questioned why he wasn't told of the meeting earlier in order to make plans to attend; and again requested all materials about the issue to be sent.

About a week later, County Manager Bruce Shell responded that he would have to take a look at the materials before passing them to Berger. This incensed Berger, who expected the materials to simply be handed over rather than needing to be "filtered" through the manager's office. Several other exchanges took place, which led up to the six page email from Berger to county staff, in which he reprimanded them for their unresponsiveness, secrecy, and avoidance of his request. Berger has since admitted to flying off the handle with his elaborate rebuke.

There was also a Facebook posting by Berger which alluded to Wilmington Industrial Development's (WID) hand in county policy, and the county's failed economic development policies. This turned out to be another source of contention.

These issues sparked a level of controversy that still leaves citizens scratching their heads. It wasn't long for other commissioners to openly question Berger's sanity and mental stability. In this Star News article, Chairman Jonathan Barfield mentions the placement of four NHC Sheriff's deputies at the commissioners' agenda briefing, citing concern for his and other commissioner's safety, due to Berger's recent emails. Commissioner Jason Thompson, known for his outrageous antics - most notably threatening the mayor of Leland   with a parking lot brawl, and warning him not to soil his Huggies; went on record saying that he was "at a loss" given Berger's actions - even though they were still nothing more than writings through email and Facebook. Commissioner Rick Catlin made efforts to garner support for the censuring of Berger.

One would think that Berger must have struck a raw nerve to receive such an outrageous response from the other commissioners. By and large, the public has seemed mildly interested in the actions of Commissioner Berger, but more enthralled by the dramatic responses of his fellow commissioners. The mention of WID having a definitive and authoritative position in county policy especially seemed to irk commissioners.

However, history demonstrates this as fact. County Manager Bruce Shell regularly alludes to meeting with "industry partners", referring to WID; as well as WID and CEO Scott Satterfield by name, while pondering decisions and county actions. WID represents the county's epicenter of taxpayer-funded economic development activities, and although has had very little to show for the millions and millions in taxpayer money given to it, still plays an integral role in county policy. However, mentioning this fact garners one the castigation of certain members of the county commission.

When examined closely, the complaints of the other commissioners regarding Berger have little merit. Obnoxious emails or not, information that an elected member of the county commission should be privy to was certainly not forthcoming. A myriad of delays and stall tactics were employed; as well as the filtering of information, and withholding of meeting schedules. How Berger responded to those facts is really window dressing when compared to the questions as to why this issue has been so carefully protected from certain eyes that have every right and necessity in seeing it.

To immediately begin questioning Berger's sanity and mental stability; and to try and create some risk of physical aggression from Berger given only his email responses, is, at best, ludicrous. At worst, this is a carefully orchestrated smear campaign aimed at his position as a county commissioner, and the perception that he poses a political threat to the agenda of the other commissioners.

State Law Violated

The latest development, as of this writing, reveals that the commission violated the law when a closed session meeting was called, and minutes were not taken, during the commissioner's agenda briefing last week. Chairman Barfield, who has the authority to call a closed session meeting - but only within the bounds of the law, apparently did not bother to weigh the legal ramifications. When asked what was discussed in Kevin Maurer's piece in the Star News, Barfield mentioned legal issues and Titan. "It is kind of hard to divorce the Titan situation with the non-attainment SO2 issue because they are all wrapped up in one," Barfield said. "We stayed on topic in regards to what we were there to talk about." However, county staff was told to leave the room so that a "personnel matter" could be discussed. The personnel in question happened to be Commissioner Brian Berger; who is a duly elected member of the board - not personnel.

However, after the meeting, both Barfield and Thompson said that they had misspoke when they said that they were discussing personnel issues. Both commissioners proclaimed that Titan was the subject du jour. Mysteriously, members of the media outside of the room could hear heated exchanges between Berger and the other commissioners as it became evident what the true nature of the meeting was.

When the dust settled, Commissioner Thompson stated that they had done nothing wrong, despite the clear evidence of state law being blatantly violated. True to form, Thompson challenged someone to come and "arrest him" and take him to jail if had broken the law, and warned the media to stop "bothering him" about it. Lucky for him, our state laws have no teeth regarding public bodies and their attention to meeting regulations.

Brian Berger's recollection of the meeting subject differed from that of the other commissioners. Berger clearly stated that the meeting regarded the board's relationship, and even talked about how he was lambasted by other board members for his recent actions.

Why did at least two of the county commissioners feel the need to lie to the media and to the public about the topic of that closed meeting? Why did they blatantly violate the law in the first place? Why weren't minutes taken? Why was staff asked to leave? The Star News reports:
The law states that the board cannot "consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body" in a closed session. Those issues can only be discussed in an open meeting.
Clearly, this was not adhered to. The county chairman is responsible for the content and context of closed meetings. Why is there such a concerted effort to demean, demoralize, and destroy the character and integrity of a fellow member of the board by other board members? Why are Berger's minor actions so scrutinized; while the threats issued by Thompson to Mayor Futch; as well as threats to undermine the duly elected school board by Barfield are given a pass?

This issue is far from settled, and certainly leaves more questions than answers. Stay tuned...