SPRING LAKE - The town of Spring Lake is without its interim town manager, who was relieved of her duties early after the Office of the State Auditor and the Local Government Commission criticized the town for its response to an audit report released March 17.
The Local Government Commission has scheduled a special meeting for 4 p.m. today in Raleigh to discuss Spring Lake. The commission plans to appoint deputy finance officers and designate account signatories for the town, according to the special meeting agenda.
Interim Town Manager Samantha Wullenwaber was relieved of her duties by the Board of Aldermen the same day the audit report was released, according to Alderman Raul Palacios. Palacios wrote a Facebook post on Thursday stating Wullenwaber would no longer be doing work as a contract employee for Spring Lake.
The Mid-Carolina Council of Governments had previously told the board that the interim manager’s contract would end April 3. Wullenwaber had been the interim town manager since last March and had worked with the commission since October when the town went under its financial control.
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 said the town’s response to the report was not complete, potentially obscured an issue, misled the reader and minimized the importance of the findings and recommendations.
In the report, the State Auditor’s office and the Local Government Commission both 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. They criticized the official response submitted by the town, saying it lacked sufficient detail, did not include target completion dates for corrective action and did not indicate who would be responsible for corrective actions, among other issues.
At least one board member said Wullenwaber’s response that was submitted to the state prompted the board to end her services as town manager earlier than expected.
“She had lost the trust of the board,” Palacios said. “We didn’t realize what she was sharing would cause the town to receive a rebuke from the LGC and the State Auditor’s office. It had not been approved by the board.”
State Auditor Beth Wood said Wullenwaber was working with the Local Government Commission to formulate a response to the audit. Sharon Edmundson, director of the state and local government finance division, praised Wullenwaber’s response in the investigative report as meeting all requirements and being more thorough and complete than the response ultimately submitted by the town.
State Treasurer Dale Folwell, chairman of the Local Government Commission, said the town’s response to the audit and the exit of the interim manager were concerning.
“This is about transparency, governance and competence at the end of the day,” Folwell said.
Folwell said now that Wullenwaber is gone, the town is potentially without a second signer for its checks.
“When you fire the person who can sign your checks, you leave your town in a lurch,’’ Folwell said. “We went physically to BB&T four times over five months to get the town a second check signer.”
Wullenwaber also served as the deputy finance officer and budget officer for Spring Lake.
Mayor Kia Anthony did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Violation of Open Meetings Law
Ahead of a news conference last Thursday about the state audit, the Board of Aldermen voted to go into closed session for an emergency meeting under the general statute for personnel. The board returned to the conference room and the mayor apologized for not giving enough notice to hold an emergency meeting. The board also had not notified the public of a possible quorum for the news conference.
Palacios said later that day he was called by another alderman to ask if there was still a consensus from the earlier meeting to relieve Wullenwaber of her duties. He said a decision to appoint a staff member had been made previously.
An email from Town Clerk Melissa Pereira went to town department heads Thursday evening saying Tim Garner would be the acting town manager until further notice. Garner is the water resources director.
Amanda Martin, a lawyer with the N.C. Press Association, said the action to hire or fire needs to be done in an official, open meeting. It cannot be done by email or sequential phone calls. Martin cited the court case Jacksonville Daily News versus the Onslow County Board of Education (1993) where the school board voted to implement pay raises by a telephone vote and not in a public meeting. The school board was found in violation of the state Open Meetings Law.
The Open Meetings Law states that final action to appointment, discharge or remove someone the public body has final authority over must be taken in an open meeting.
The town has had seven closed sessions since Jan. 11 during four scheduled board meetings and three specially called meetings, including the emergency meeting called on March 17. Four of the seven closed sessions, including the March 17 meeting, cited the general statute for personnel. There has been no action taken in open meetings from the closed sessions.
“When you have so many closed sessions, people start to lose confidence,” Folwell said.
Next steps by the Local Government Commission
Folwell said Monday that the Local Government Commission is concerned about the town, especially the taxpayers who are ultimately paying the price for the malfeasance cited in the audit report.
“There is a high level of interest by members of the LGC for a public discussion of this report sooner than later,” Folwell said.
The Local Government Commission has scheduled a special meeting to discuss Spring Lake at 4 p.m. today. The commission members and staff will attend in person and others are invited to join by Webinar using a link on www.nctreasurer.com.
The town has called a special meeting for a closed session under the general statute for attorney-client privilege for Thursday at 6 p.m.