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Candidates talk police, water during East Spencer forum

EAST SPENCER — An East Spencer candidate forum Monday night didn’t stray far from the town hall itself.
Three challengers and the lone incumbent all cited improving the police department as a top priority for the town and for the candidates.
Otis Gibson, Titus King and Robert Smith, challengers for the three open aldermen seats, and incumbent Phronice Johnson answered prepared questions from a moderator during Monday night’s forum. Only a handful of residents attended.
In recent months, some candidates have spoken out about the police department after current and former officers told the Post former police chief Darren Westmoreland had improperly conducted investigations.
Westmoreland was fired in July following a special meeting to discuss the Post reports.
The town tapped Michael Baxter to serve as the town’s acting chief as officials search for a new chief.
Some candidates, like Gibson and Johnson, didn’t address Westmoreland’s termination but said the town has had a problem and needs progress in the department moving forward.
“People have to feel safe,” Gibson said, when asked the town’s top priority. “I would say safety would be my first priority.”
Johnson, who has served on the board through a slew of police chiefs, said she thinks the development of land around Exit 79 at Interstate 85 should be the priority.
But she acknowledged the department’s woes as well.
“Yes, there is a problem. There’s been a problem,” Johnson said. “We will not make the same mistakes that have been made.”
Making the town feel safe, she said, would be a significant step to economic development in the town.
“In the 12 years that I’ve been here we’ve had police chiefs who did not have the town at heart,” she said. “We need someone who has the town’s heart and who is also qualified.”
Records obtained by the Post said Westmoreland did not have homicide training. In a Rowan County Sheriff’s Office incident report, a homicide investigator said Westmoreland called off assistance from the Sheriff’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation following the 2011 murder of Travis Hinds.
Town officials also said earlier this month that they were not aware of Westmoreland’s criminal record, which included three misdemeanor charges. Only one of those offenses, a larceny charge, is listed on the state corrections department’s website.
King and Smith took a more direct approach, aiming at the town administration that hired Westmoreland as well as the current police administration.
“I think it’s a major problem,” Smith said of the department. “When you’ve got — from what I understand — one officer at night and three in the evening, at night is when the crime is.”
Smith, an assistant pastor, said he’s personally had run-ins with the department and said he filed complaints that were never addressed.
“I know that we need to restructure the police department and get some qualified police protection in East Spencer,” Smith said.
Titus King criticized the town for hiring Westmoreland and said town administrators should be held responsible for their hires.
“If we as leaders want to make sure we move forward then we have to make sure our public is informed,” King said. “Just like what just happened with our police chief — we had to dismiss him because of the fact that the man had a record worse than the man on the street. If we want to move forward then we have to actually quit hiring rejects and do what we have to do to make people feel safe.”
Candidates King and Smith also said the town has to focus on lowering the water bill while keeping the system under the town’s control.
Both said the town is considering shopping the water system to Salisbury, but said town officials need to explore all avenues for keeping the system before dropping it.
“If we don’t actually stop people from moving out because of the high water bill then everything else is a dream,” King said.
Gibson, a former longtime educator, said he’d like to see more development with the town park, too.
Gibson said he has experience working with educators and civic groups to create social programs for children and adults, both of which, he said, would benefit East Spencer residents.
Building community programs, he said, helps to understand civic work.
“You just know how to bring people together on one accord,” he said.

Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.

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