SPRING LAKE — The state treasurer on Thursday said he will not approve the money to hire Justine Jones as the next manager for Spring Lake.
State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who is also chairman of the Local Government Commission, cited statutory authority and the commission’s financial oversight of Spring Lake as his reasons for not approving the funding.
The Spring Lake Board of Aldermen on Monday voted 3-2 to hire Jones, who was fired over the summer as the Kenly town manager after the police force — including the chief — resigned citing a hostile work environment.
“The town does not need a distraction from the important work they are doing to return the town to fiscal health,” Folwell said in a release Thursday.
He cited concern over the potential for legal and financial liabilities and the potential adverse impact on town morale.
“New and unsettling information has come to light about the past employment history of the individual who was offered the job,’’ Folwell said. “That information does not generate confidence that she is the right fit at this time to lead Spring Lake.”
The Kenly Town Council voted 3-2 to terminate Jones in August.
Her termination came 90 days into her contract after the entire police department, including four full-time police officers and the police chief who had served in the town for over 20 years, turned in their resignations citing a hostile work environment. Joining the mass departures were the assistant town manager and a town clerk. Kenly is in Johnston and Wilson counties and has around 1,500 residents. Spring Lake has almost 12,000 residents.
Before her short time in Kenly, Jones had sued her previous employer in Richland County, South Carolina, alleging gender and racial discrimination after she was fired. Her suit was later dismissed, according to news reports. She spent her time between Richland County and Kenly working for her own consulting company.
Spring Lake Mayor Kia Anthony and town attorney Michael Porter said Kenly hired a third-party private investigator and it was proven that the claims of a hostile work environment were unfounded.
The mayor voiced her support for Jones at the meeting Monday.
“She’s a very qualified person and manager,’’ Anthony said. “She had both the qualifications and the experience.”
Anthony said Thursday that she was unaware that Folwell or the Local Government Commission had concerns until she received a notification from a media outlet.
“I’m definitely shocked. Absolutely shocked and disappointed,’’ Anthony said. “I am disappointed that Mr. Folwell chose to communicate via the media instead of directly talking to us. We did not receive a heads up from him before, during or after this process to indicate they did not want Ms. Jones.”
She said that with the manager-council form of government that the board had communicated throughout the process through their interim Town Manager Joe Durham, who in turn had communicated with LGC staff including David Erwin, Sharon Edmundson and Susan McCullen.
Anthony said the resumes for the six candidates who applied, including the two finalists, had been sent to LGC staff.
“We made them well aware through our manager of the candidates we were considering,” Anthony said.
“When we communicated that Ms. Jones was a candidate, we were told they were excited she was one of the candidates we were considering,” Anthony said. “There should not have been any surprises.”
Folwell said the Local Government Commission and staff did not approve the list of candidates from the town or the selection of a specific candidate.
“Although our staff was silent on this hiring decision, on matters this important, we should never assume that silence is consent,” Folwell said.
Folwell said he learned about the hiring of Jones on Monday night after the vote.
At Monday’s meeting, Alderwoman Adrian Thompson made the motion to appoint Jones as permanent town manager effective Oct. 24 on conditional approval of the contract by the Local Government Commission, the Board of Aldermen and the town attorney and acceptance of the contract terms by Jones.
Folwell said he cannot support the board’s decision.
“We expect the Board of Aldermen to act like professionals and to serve their constituents with the high degree of stewardship and accountability expected of elected officials,’’ Folwell said. “In turn, we strive to treat them in a professional manner with respect for their office. It is our desire to allow the board to make the best decisions possible for all taxpayers and residents.
“However, due to the town’s past inability to stay on course, they are under our power of the public purse, and I believe it is necessary to oppose this selection in the best interests of the community,” Folwell said.
Voting for Jones on Monday were Mayor Pro Tem Robin Chadwick, Alderwoman Sona Cooper and Thompson.
Chadwick and Cooper said Thursday they knew nothing of the development when reached for comment. They did not respond further.
Thompson did not respond to a request for comment.
Voting against Jones were Alderman Marvin Lackman and Alderman Raul Palacios.
Lackman said he was surprised but repeated his sentiment from Monday that he felt there was a better candidate based on interviews and qualifications.
“I cast my vote based on my research and knowledge,’’ Lackman said. “I can only speak for myself, but I thought there was a better candidate. At the end of the day, I want the very best for Spring Lake. I am a resident and ran for office to help make positive change for our town.”
Palacios said he also was surprised to hear from Folwell on the hiring but felt the town could move forward to another candidate who would help earn the trust of residents and manage the fiscal plight.
“While I am on the record as being against the hiring of Ms. Jones, I apologize to our citizens for another unfortunate development,’’ Palacios said. “Our town is largely active and retired military service members who deserve a town manager that is qualified and experienced to lead. We knew the LGC would be part of this process and that they would have the ‘final say’ in the hiring process. I take the LGC's stance very seriously, and while another public blemish on this town is unfavorable, our taxpayers’ fiscal health and trust matter more.”
Folwell said Thursday that employee morale and the ability to budget and manage the finances of a large organization should be at the forefront of the board’s decision-making.
“The citizens have been through a lot in the last 10 years,’’ Folwell said. “The embezzlement by the former finance director at the end of the day comes from taxpayers. She funded her husband’s nursing home with taxpayer dollars. She embezzled money from every resident in Spring Lake.”
Folwell was referring to Gay Tucker, the former Spring Lake finance director and accounting technician, who pleaded guilty in September to embezzling more than $500,000 from the town between 2016 and 2021. She is scheduled to be sentenced in December.
The Local Government Commission took over Spring Lake’s finances in October 2021. State Auditor Beth Wood earlier this year found over $500,000 in misappropriated funds from Spring Lake, and other questions about missing town property remain unanswered, the release said. A state audit in 2016 also found mismanagement of the town’s finances.
“The town has drowned twice in the last 10 years,’’ Folwell said. “My passion is a representation coming from thinking of the low- and fixed-income residents in Spring Lake. Spring Lake needs to present an image that will attract top talent.”
“There is no room for error anymore.”
Anthony said this development was a shock to the board so the members have not had time to look at a backup candidate or plan. The board will need to maneuver to figure out where it goes next.
“We were expecting Ms. Jones to be in place and have not had a chance to figure out our next steps yet,” Anthony said.
Anthony said communication between the town and the LGC needs to improve.
“I believe we as a board need to take the additional step to make sure the entire commission is notified so that we can open clear, concise and transparent communication,’’ she said. “It is important that from now on, we communicate openly. We want to work together to help move Spring Lake forward.”
Folwell said Thursday afternoon that Spring Lake will not be successful until everyone involved in the town focuses on transparency, competency and governance.
“Spring Lake residents have been through a lot,” he said.
The town has called a special meeting for 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17, citing the N.C. general statute for personnel. The meeting will take place in the Grady Howard conference room at Spring Lake Town Hall.
Jami McLaughlin covers Spring Lake for CityView. She can be reached at email@example.com.