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Spring Lake board rejects proposed invocation policy


SPRING LAKE — The invocation will continue to be given by the Board of Aldermen and invited guests during meetings after the board rejected a proposed invocation policy Monday night. 

The meeting was opened by Spring Lake resident Summer Kindle, who gave the invocation and led the Pledge of Allegiance. Kindle said she reached out to the board after reading about the invocation policy, and Alderman Marvin Lackman responded. He connected her to the town clerk.

Two former board members, James Christian and Fredericka Sutherland, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. They encouraged the board to vote against the proposed prayer policy.

“The town has other higher priorities than pursuing a personal agenda,’’ Christian said. “We need to be focusing on finances and rebuilding the town. We haven’t violated the Constitution at all.”

Sutherland agreed that there are more pressing issues for the town.

“The invocation needs to be left alone and anyone who wants to say the invocation should be allowed to do so. I don’t pray to a generic God. I stand on behalf of this town and the 16 years I served,” said Sutherland as she addressed each point from the proposed invocation policy. “Do the right thing for the great town of Spring Lake and not a personal agenda.”

The proposed policy included nine invocation guidelines and a resolution, which would not allow board members to give the invocation. Instead, the board would ask groups or individuals to offer an invocation or a brief statement of reflection. The proposed policy also stated if the board did not have a person scheduled for the invocation, the chair at his or her discretion could ask for a moment of silence. One of the guidelines outlined that the board served constituents of all faiths, expressed no faith preference and recognized no faith as superior or inferior to others. 

Interim Town Manager Joe Durham introduced the draft policy and proposed resolution.

“These are draft policies for you to consider,” Durham said.

Alderwoman Sona Cooper thanked staff members for their work on the proposed policy and said it opens it to more participation from the community, including different faiths.

Lackman also thanked Durham for the effort but added this was the fourth time it had come before the board and he hoped it was the last time it would be discussed.

Mayor Pro Tem Robyn Chadwick quickly voiced her agreement.

Alderman Raul Palacios asked whether a motion on the proposed policy was needed Monday night. Durham said the board could adopt it, amend it, bring it back or take no action.

Chadwick said if no one signed up to give the invocation then board members should be allowed.

Mayor Kia Anthony said the invocation policy would not include the board.

“We want to try to stay away from the board,’’ Anthony said. “That’s the whole point to get away from the board administering the invocation simply because we are in a position of influence. We are in the position of stature, and we have to be an unbiased representation of our community.”

Anthony said when they are on the dais they have to be representative of all residents in Spring Lake and not everyone is Christian, Muslim or Buddhist.

“It can be construed as influential,’’ she said. “We are putting this out to protect us from any sort of litigation, or backlash. This is not an attack on Christianity or to remove religion. This is us protecting ourselves by way of legislation, so we are one representative of the entire community and not of our personal beliefs. On the dais, it is not what we believe personally. It is about being direct reflections of our community, so we take ourselves off and we put on an unbiased representation. We open it up to the community to present and not let it come from us.”

Lackman responded “no” without waiting to be recognized by Anthony as one resident in the audience said “Amen. Vote already.”

Palacios responded to the mayor that while on the dais they were leaders in the community and every vote was based on personal beliefs to represent the citizens.

“It is my opinion that the policy itself is not a requirement,’’ Palacios said. “It is not a requirement of the law. I think merely inviting the public to do the invocation in their form with their religious beliefs is sufficient to cover and protect us as you are stating.”

Palacios said in emergency meetings the board would have to default to a moment of silence under the proposed policy. He asked Town Attorney Jonathan Charleston if it was allowable not to take action. Charleston gave options and said if there was no motion to approve it would not move forward.

Lackman then made a motion to reject the proposed resolution, invocation policy guidance and procedures and to continue with their accepted practices. Alderwoman Adrian Thompson seconded the motion.

When Anthony asked for further discussion, Cooper said she thought the policy would be OK with some tweaks. She also said it was important to have a written policy.

Charleston said even though there was a motion on the table, the board could consider allowing management to come back with additional guidance rather than proceeding with a motion to reject the policy. He said it was important for the board to be in compliance with the law.

Palacios said the board can be in compliance without a policy.

Anthony again said the proposed policy was not an attack on Christianity. She said she wanted the policy in order to be inclusive to all people, adding it would be for future boards as well.

Lackman said his motion still stands and he was ready to vote. Several people in the audience of around 15 residents replied with murmurs of “yes” and “let’s go.”

The Board of Aldermen rejected the proposed prayer policy on a 4-1 vote. Cooper was the dissenting vote.

In other business, the board removed a resolution to dispose of town vehicles. Durham said the Local Government Commission took action in January and the town could move forward with the disposition.

Palacios reported that the Audit Committee, made up of himself, Anthony and Cooper, reviewed the audit findings, selected officers for their committee and discussed a code of ethics. He said a resident with a financial background would be selected from those who apply to be on the committee. They plan to focus on the audit findings with their corrective actions, including identifying responsible parties and a timetable for tasks.

The audit findings refer to a state audit report released March 17 that 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 purchase

The next Audit Committee meeting is scheduled for June 9 at 5:30 p.m. The meeting will be open to the public, and the town website will be updated with information regularly, according to Palacios.

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, invocation policy