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Interim town manager, prayer on Spring Lake agenda

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SPRING LAKE - The Spring Lake Board of Aldermen is scheduled to swear in Joe Durham as the interim town manager on Monday at the regularly scheduled board meeting.

A discussion about prayer at town meetings, which was pulled from a previous meeting, is also on the agenda. The board meets at 6 p.m. at town hall.

Durham, of the management consulting firm Joe Durham and Associates, was contracted by the town to hire a permanent town manager in February. Mayor Kia Anthony announced Thursday during a special meeting that the board had entered into an agreement to hire Durham for the interim position.

Samantha Wullenwaber, who had been serving as interim manager, was relieved of her duties by the Board of Aldermen on March 17. The Mid-Carolina Council of Governments had previously told the board that the interim manager’s contract would end April 3. 

Also on March 17, the state Auditor’s Office released a report about the town’s finances and operations. The report said a lack of oversight and controls led to money missing from the town.

The audit report outlined six findings, including that the former finance director used more than $400,000 in town money for personal use and that town employees had spent over $100,000 in questionable credit card purchases.

The state Auditor’s Office and the Local Government Commission were critical of the town’s response to the audit findings, saying it lacked sufficient detail, did not include target dates for completion, or indicate who would be responsible for corrective actions, among other issues.

In the report, both agencies referenced an initial response to the audit provided by Wullenwaber, saying it provided a detailed look at how the town might address issues raised in the audit.

Alderwoman Sona Cooper said she was excited about Durham serving as interim manager, saying he would be instrumental in helping the town move forward in a positive way.

“This is a really big deal for Spring Lake that someone of his caliber and his experience would be willing to come help Spring Lake,’’ Cooper said. “His leadership is very much needed.”

Durham has served for more than 30 years in municipal government, including 13 years as the Wake County manager.

On Friday, Durham said the results of the state audit could present challenges for the manager search. He said it would be more difficult to attract quality applicants in a field that is already competitive.

“With the state audit findings and other issues, delaying the process until the town can gain some strong footing will help the town get more qualified candidates,” Durham said.

Durham said he hopes he can hit the ground running as soon as possible, hopefully, this week.

“There are multiple top priorities, including focusing on the state audit findings and working with David Erwin and the LGC (Local Government Commission) staff in the budget process,” Durham said.

Erwin is the accounting and financial management advisor with the Department of the State Treasurer and the town finance officer.

The Local Government Commission took over the town’s finances in October amid concerns over budget deficits, fiscal disarray and possible missing money. The commission has appointed staff members to help oversee the town’s finances.

Alderman Raul Palacios said that when Durham is appointed on Monday, his first priority will be to help the board address the audit findings, which will include policy changes and internal control monitoring.

“We are at an advantage because this is an area that he knows well,” Palacios said.

Following last Thursday’s special meeting, the mayor, Cooper and Palacios met with state Sen. Kirk deViere and state Rep. Marvin Lucas in the mayor’s office.

DeViere said Friday that he and Lucas encouraged the board to work with the Local Government Commission, the State Auditor’s office and other state agencies. He said the town has the opportunity with a new board to move in a better direction.

“At the end of the day, if you put all of the players in the same room, they will want the same outcome,” deViere said. 

Invocation back on the agenda

Also on Monday, Anthony is expected to lead a discussion on amending the agenda outline to address the invocation.

Anthony did not return calls seeking comment.

She has previously said that she believes the way the invocation is done violates the Constitution. She has cited a 2017 publication by the UNC School of Government, which stated a state court identified four practices that, when combined, violate the Constitution. They were: only board members deliver the prayers; the board members are all of the same religion; there is no opportunity for other faiths to be represented; and the board meetings occur in the intimate setting of a local government meeting.

The Supreme Court upheld in 2014 that the Constitution not only allowed for prayer at government meetings but sectarian prayers, which was also a main point of the publication.

The Fayetteville City Council, the county Board of Commissioners and the Hope Mills Board of Commissioners all have an invocation at the start of their meetings. Hope Mills said it works with a local pastors’ group, and if someone is not available a town board member will give the prayer. The county and the city schedule each year for someone to deliver the invocation, but with COVID they have not brought guests into the meetings.

Fayetteville has three pastors on the council who have taken turns to say the prayer, Jennifer Ayre, the deputy city clerk, said.

Lucas said there is still an invocation at the state level, and lawmakers take turns rotating prayers, round-robin style, like Spring Lake currently does.

All of these practices were supported by the publication cited in the agenda packet for Monday. It also stated that if local governments engaged in prayer, which was within their Constitutional right, they could consider adopting a policy for their prayer practices. That could include having a description of the process used to select prayer-givers, such as a round-robin method, or including a statement setting out the purpose of the prayer, such as to “solemnize the work of the body.”

Alderman Marvin Lackman said he was resolute that the town was not in violation of the Constitution.

“The removing or changing of the invocation was brought up before and I was not in favor of removing or altering the invocation then, and based on the reference cited in the agenda packet with the practices of the N.C. legislature and other municipalities continuing the same practices, I cannot see how our practices are unconstitutional,” Lackman said.

Lackman said he had been contacted by many residents who were in favor of keeping the invocation as it is now but he had not been contacted by anyone who favored removing or changing it.

Other items on the agenda include a presentation by the Spring Lake Police Department on the Special Olympics and the torch run coming through town on April 23 and possibly lifting COVID requirements, including an indoor mask mandate for town facilities. Cumberland County rescinded the mask abatement order in February.

Jami McLaughlin covers Spring Lake for CityView TODAY. She can be reached at jmclaughlin@cityviewnc.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

Spring Lake, Board of Aldermen, interim manager, prayer, state audit

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