SPRING LAKE - Joe Durham was sworn in as Spring Lake’s interim town manager on Monday night, and the Board of Aldermen also voted to explore a policy change regarding invocations at town meetings.
Board members had been scheduled to hear a financial update from the Local Government Commission but removed the item from the agenda, saying they needed more time to review the report.
Durham was welcomed with applause by the Board of Aldermen as he recited the oath of office administered by Mayor Kia Anthony.
“I appreciate your confidence and trust in me,’’ Durham said. “I look forward to working with you and the citizens of Spring Lake. There is a lot of work that needs to be done. There are a lot of challenges and a lot of opportunities.”
Durham has served for more than 30 years in municipal government, including 13 years as the Wake County manager. The town contracted with Durham in February to conduct a permanent town manager search before he accepted the interim position to help the town as it addresses the findings identified in a state audit report released March 17.
The report said a lack of oversight and controls led to money missing from the town.
Durham said he hoped to start work Wednesday although Town Clerk Melissa Pereira said the board was still finalizing his contract.
The Local Government Commission staff said earlier Monday they were not aware prior to a special commission meeting last week that Durham was being hired. They said they anticipated the vote based on the board’s agenda Monday.
The Board of Aldermen did not vote on Durham’s appointment Monday night.
That was mentioned by Fredricka Sutherland, a former alderwoman who was in the audience Monday night to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“As long as I served on the board, we always voted in interim and permanent town managers,’’ said Sutherland, who served on the board for 16 years. “Any time you are dealing with taxpayer dollars, it needs to be voted on and it needs to be in the minutes. It’s a matter of transparency.”
Anthony said the board had been advised by the town attorney that it could appoint by consensus.
Adjustment to prayer
During the public comment portion of the meeting, former board members James Christian and Sutherland along with Pastor Vernon Marsh, president of the Spring Lake Ministerial Alliance, spoke in favor of keeping the prayer at town meetings. Marsh gave the invocation Monday night.
“Prayer needs to stay in place,” Marsh said during the public comments.
Anthony said her intention was not to remove the prayer entirely but to adjust it to a nonsectarian prayer, which she said would be more in line with the Constitution.
“Contrary to what was presented to the public, our intention was never to remove the prayer from our agenda,” Anthony said. “We are proposing to amend the prayer to a nonsectarian prayer that puts us in compliance.”
Previous town agendas on amending the meeting outline showed a draft that removed the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance from the agenda. They also included a published blog post from the UNC School of Government summarizing prayer practices at local government meetings.
Anthony asked the board to create a policy that will outline the criteria for town prayers and to direct staff to bring a proposed policy back for consideration. She also asked that a roster be created to allow all organizations and churches to participate in the invocation.
Alderman Raul Palacios asked for clarification that the board was not being asked to remove the invocation or the Pledge of Allegiance, as it appeared to have been presented previously, and that this was for the adoption of a nonsectarian prayer policy. He also asked the mayor for her definition of a nonsectarian prayer.
“A nonsectarian prayer does not invoke any one religion,’’ Anthony said. “It is open so we are not showing favoritism to any one religion.”
Palacios asked if that would prohibit him from saying “in Jesus’ name’’ at the end of his prayers and if others would be asked to do the same depending on their religious preferences.
“That would be outlined in the policy, making sure we are in 100% compliance,” Anthony said. “The way we do prayer now with the prayer coming from the board and the board being predominantly Christian, we are in violation of the U.S. Constitution.”
Anthony said the town could go into detail on how it defines a nonsectarian prayer and provide examples as a guideline.
The Supreme Court upheld in 2014 that the Constitution not only allowed for prayer at government meetings, but sectarian, or religious, prayers.
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.
Alderman Marvin Lackman said he had been contacted by several residents and he wanted to go on record that he was not in favor of any changes to the invocation. He has said previously that based on practices by the state legislature and other municipalities that he could not see where the town’s practices were unconstitutional.
“I have not been approached by one individual who wanted the invocation altered, changed or removed,’’ Lackman said. “I will vote against this unless it is changed by the Supreme Court.”
Mayor Pro Tem Robyn Chadwick said she was not in favor of having a speech recited as the mayor proposed because she didn’t feel that would be genuine.
“Yes, we need to be in compliance, but I agree with Alderman Lackman. I’m concerned with what it would look like,” Chadwick said, adding that she needed more information.
Alderwoman Sona Cooper said she also had people contacting her about the issue.
“What we are saying is that we want to make sure we are doing this right and that we are not offending anyone,’’ Cooper said. “We want to make sure we are covered. As a unit of government, we have to abide by certain rules and statutes.”
Palacios said he would look at this as a suggested policy change but was unsure that his position would change.
“This is not the most important issue of the town, but if we get presented something later down the road, then let’s see it,” Palacios said.
The board voted 4-1 to create a policy regarding the invocation. Lackman cast the dissenting vote.
Staff members from the Local Government Commission were at the meeting to present a report on the town’s finances. Palacios said the board had not received the numbers in time to review them prior to the meeting so the board asked to delay the presentation until its next meeting.
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.
In other business, the board voted to lift the mask mandate for town facilities and hosted an orientation for newly appointed town committee members.
Jami McLaughlin covers Spring Lake for CityView TODAY. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.