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State auditor supports treasurer’s decision to reject Spring Lake’s pick for manager

Beth Wood supports Dale Folwell in withholding funding for hire

The state auditor has said she supports the state treasurer's move to deny funding to Spring Lake to hire a new town manager.
The state auditor has said she supports the state treasurer's move to deny funding to Spring Lake to hire a new town manager.
File photo by Jami McLaughlin

SPRING LAKE — N.C. State Auditor Beth Wood says she supports a fellow cabinet member in his decision to deny funding for Spring Lake to hire a town manager — despite the mayor’s recent contention that Wood supports the town board’s choice for the job.

Wood said Wednesday that she does not support the hiring of Justine Jones and that State Treasurer Dale Folwell’s decision to withhold funding for the hire is appropriate.

After a closed meeting by the Board of Aldermen on Monday, Mayor Kia Anthony said the town would be sending a contract to the N.C. Local Government Commission to hire Jones as the next town manager.

The town board voted 3-2 on Oct. 10 to appoint Jones as permanent town manager with the condition that Jones, the Local Government Commission, the Board of Aldermen and the town attorney accept the contract terms.

Folwell, who is also chairman of the Local Government Commission, halted the hiring when he issued a news release saying he would not approve the funding to hire Jones.

He cited Jones’ employment history, his concern for potential legal and financial liabilities, and the potential adverse effect on town morale.

The Local Government Commission took over Spring Lake’s finances in October 2021 amid concerns of potential budget deficits, longstanding fiscal disarray and an investigation of missing money.

Wood recently found that more than $500,000 was misappropriated by Spring Lake officials.

A state audit in 2016 also found mismanagement of the town’s finances.

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According to Jones’ resume, she has one year of budget experience and served as Kenly’s town manager for three months before being fired. The town made national headlines when seven employees, including the police chief and four full-time police officers, resigned after Jones had been on the job for 45 days. They said she created a hostile work environment.

Anthony and Spring Lake Town Attorney Michael Porter said Kenly hired a third-party private investigator who determined that the claims of a hostile work environment were unfounded.

Contract offer

After the Oct. 10 meeting, Anthony told reporters that the town would send the contract to Jones because the board had not received official word from the Local Government Commission on Folwell’s decision. That news came in a news release issued by Folwell two weeks ago.

Anthony said the town was stalled in its ability to hire Jones and that Jones had been approved and vetted by town officials.

“We need an official response on the record so we can concretely move forward without any confusion,” said Anthony.

One reporter told Anthony that he had heard from longtime Spring Lake residents who raised concerns that hiring Jones would be another dark cloud over the already troubled town.

Anthony responded that she had been given a news article in which Wood said that Jones would be a great fit for the town and that the Board of Aldermen had made the right decision to hire Jones.

“That’s coming directly from the state auditor, and she has a deeply vested interest in the town of Spring Lake,” Anthony said.

But Wood said Wednesday that she did not say Jones was a great fit for Spring Lake.

“What (Anthony) said about what I said is absolutely and unequivocally not true. I never said I supported the hiring of Justine Jones or that she was a good hire for Spring Lake,” said Wood.

Wood said Anthony “pulled my words out of context and used them to defend the decision to hire Justine Jones.”

Anthony was referring to an interview in which reporter Theresa Opeka of the Carolina Journal’s “Issues & Insiders” show asked Wood about Folwell’s decision.

Wood replied that she had not investigated the situation but added that towns like Spring Lake that have been under scrutiny for financial wrongdoing must be especially prudent when bringing in a new manager.

Wood said based on her experience with the Local Government Commission and the towns it has investigated, a new manager who was holding town employees accountable in adhering to policies and procedures might face pushback from those employees.

“Everyone in that group that is now being made to walk the line, as they should, might get angry,” Wood told Opeka.

Wood said in an interview Wednesday that she was not talking specifically about Jones in that interview. The conversation was about when checks and balances are brought in, some workers who have not been held accountable before might object to it from a new manager.

“In some towns, we don’t know because it is not documented whether work vehicles are also being used for personal use or if there isn’t something that slips by in credit-card receipts because they haven’t fully accounted for the usage or budget,” said Wood.

She said that could be what happened in Kenly, the town in Johnston and Wilson counties where Jones previously was manager. If the pushback Jones received there was because she held town workers accountable, then Jones would be a great hire, Wood said.

“But I did not say that Justine Jones was the right fit for Spring Lake. I started the answer out that I had not done my homework on her,” Wood said.

Wood added that Folwell has done his homework on the Spring Lake situation.

“Treasurer Folwell has looked at her entire work history to determine not to fund her in the position,” Wood said. “He absolutely has the authority to do what he did, and he determined that she was not in the best interest of Spring Lake.”

She said in his role as chairman of the Local Government Commission and the supervisor of that agency’s staff, Folwell is well within his purview to reject hiring Jones.

On Monday, Anthony said town officials want to hear from the entire commission, not just one board member.

“That was Dale Folwell and not the LGC, which is why we are moving forward, because we have the voice from one member and not the body,” Anthony said.

“We are going by general statutes. We are going to move by North Carolina law within our authority,” she said. “We are going to get an official response from the board.”

Wood said that all members of the Local Government Commission are informed about the missteps and wrongdoings in Spring Lake.

“The LGC staff has worked hard for months to get the town back on its feet,” Wood said. “I mean they have worked hard. Why would you allow someone to come in who was not competent?”

Before her brief tenure in Kenly, Jones sued Richland County, South Carolina, alleging gender and racial discrimination after she was fired. In between, she spent five years running her own consultant company.

In her first attempt to express interest in the town manager position in Spring Lake, Jones submitted a cover letter to Anthony and the “Town of Spring Park” nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. Later, she sent an amended cover letter addressed to Spring Lake.  

Wood said the state simply does not have the staff to continue to help towns that find themselves in financial trouble not once, but twice. She cited Princeville and Spring Lake.

“It’s unfair to other towns who pay for their own financial staff,” Wood said.

After announcing his decision not to approve funding to hire Jones in Spring Lake, Folwell said, “There is no room for error. Our primary goal is to save Spring Lake from drowning and return the town to financial health and operational stability.”

Anthony did not respond to a request for comment on Wood’s statements.

Spring Lake, Dale Folwell, Beth Wood, Justine Jones, Kia Anthony