The Spring Lake attorney announced his plans to resign Wednesday, the same day the Local Government Commission held a special meeting in Raleigh to appoint staff to help with the town’s finances.
Attorney Jonathan Charleston of The Charleston Group stated in a letter emailed to the Local Government Commission and to Mayor Kia Anthony that while he and his firm had worked with the town through several challenges, they believe now is a good time to transition to new counsel.
Charleston said he would make sure there is a smooth transition but was willing to leave earlier than the agreed-upon 30 days if that is what the Board of Aldermen wanted.
“While we are legally required to give a thirty (30) day advance notice pursuant to our agreement, we can accommodate a sooner departure with the Town’s express consent,” Charleston wrote.
The Local Government Commission met Wednesday to make appointments and designations for deputy finance officer and account signatory in response to the termination of the interim town manager by the Board of Aldermen on March 17. Former interim Town Manager Samantha Wullenwaber also served as a budget officer, the deputy finance officer and as a secondary check signer for the town.
Wullenwaber’s termination, which was made outside of an open meeting, came on the heels of the release of a state audit report and an unfavorable response to the town from the State Auditor’s office and the Local Government Commission.
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 agencies said the town’s response to the audit lacked sufficient detail, did not include target dates for completion, or indicate who would be responsible for each corrective action, among other issues.
“The response was not what we asked for,” state Auditor Beth Wood said during Wednesday’s meeting.
Wullenwaber provided an initial response to the audit report. Wood said that response was very detailed and contained everything her office needed. She said the aldermen worked with the town attorney and submitted a different response to the Local Government Commission.
Wood also talked with the Local Government Commission about a social media post that an alderman made over the weekend that stated the board did not dispute any of the findings.
Wood did not name the alderman, but a post by Alderman Raul Palacios over the weekend said there were concerns with publishing Wullenwaber’s draft because it had “unverified allegations against other people and went against legal counsel.” Palacios also alleged in the post that the response from Wullenwaber had been leaked without board knowledge to the Local Government Commission.
“It was always intended to come to me,” Wood said, adding that even if she had not seen the initial response, her office still would have rejected the response from the town because it lacked the requirements that were outlined to the board.
“So now I’m looking at a Facebook post by one of the aldermen that has gone out to all of the citizens,’’ Wood said. “The LGC’s involvement is becoming more difficult because the aldermen are misrepresenting what actually went on. It needs to be brought to the attention of the commissioners here because of where this may be headed.”
Wood said she would like the public and residents to know that what is going on is more divisiveness in Spring Lake.
Palacios said he was listening to Wednesday’s meeting and was surprised that his post came up.
“At first, I had to figure out if I had something wrong in my post with some things she said, but I stand by every word. All the information in my post was true,” Palacios said.
He said there were some details mentioned, such as Wood giving the town a list of requirements and a letter, which was never received by the board. He said the Local Government Commission was at the meetings, but it did not mention requirements. He said the commission staff only made suggestions.
Palacios said there were things the aldermen would be looking at, such as adding or amending policies, but they didn’t feel that they could add dates knowing their interim town manager would be leaving soon and they were unsure when they could fill that position.
Wood said state officials needed a more complete response to make sure missing money never happens again.
“We need to come together to understand there is no maliciousness on (the) part of the state auditor or state treasurer staffs. We are simply trying to help get the town back on its feet,” Wood said.
The Local Government Commission took over the town’s finances in October amid concerns over budget deficits, fiscal disarray and possible missing money. Some of those issues were addressed in the audit report released March 17.
Wood said Spring Lake does not have a published plan for the residents or the Local Government Commission to follow and be able to monitor corrective actions related to the audit’s findings.
After Wood addressed the Local Government Commission, the commissioners appointed Tiffany Anderson and Susan McCullen as deputy finance officers for Spring Lake. Anderson and
McCullen are staff members with the state Treasurer’s Office. David Erwin, another commission staff member, will remain as the town finance officer.
The Local Government Commission also retained Erwin as an account signatory and designated Anderson and McCullen as account signatories.
Wood asked if these appointments would help address immediate concerns with keeping the town running, especially with issues like getting checks signed for payroll.
“When the town read the responses to their response, sometime that day, they walked the interim town manager out of the building,’’ Wood said. “They terminated her without really covering and making sure the town is functionable.”
Wood asked if the Local Government Commission staff was able to step in with short notice.
McCullen said she and Erwin were in Spring Lake the day after the town manager was dismissed and they were working to make sure that issues like payroll would be resolved.
The Board of Aldermen has called a special meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. for a closed session under attorney-client privilege.
Jami McLaughlin covers Spring Lake for CityView TODAY. She can be reached at email@example.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.