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Republican commissioners vote 4-1 against GOP headquarters lease

SALISBURY —  It happened just like County Commissioner Craig Pierce predicted.

With four of five opposed, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners on Monday denied the local Republican Party the ability to lease space at West End Plaza. Pierce was the only person who voted to allow the Rowan County Republican Party to lease the space for a rate of $420 per month from June to November.

Commissioners, however, weren’t considering a finalized lease, but the ability of the party to use space at West End Plaza.

West End Plaza is one of several locations being considered by the local Republican Party. Historically, downtown is where the party sets up its headquarters during election years. In 2016, it’s looking at options that offer more parking and a lower rent than downtown Salisbury, according to Pierce.

West End Plaza is a county-owned building. As such, leases at the facility require commissioners’ approval.

Opposition from four of the five commissioners ranged from a perceived conflict of interest to whether a political party headquarters fit within future plans for West End Plaza.

Current tenants of the facility include retail stores and a restaurant. A large portion of the building is empty, and a number of county departments are scheduled to move into the facility. Commissioners have also floated the idea of placing an events center in West End Plaza that could be rented.

County Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds was perhaps the most vocal critic of the proposed lease during Monday’s meeting.

“My initial response when I was asked about this was just immediate,” he said. “I thought that would place us in a position of being criticized. We are back to crazy times in Rowan County, and folks are looking for every little thing to criticize. I simply just did not feel this was worth giving outside folks ammunition to fire at this board over a perceived conflict of interest.”

Pierce has countered that he’d be willing to lease space to other political parties at the same price, which he says eliminates the conflict of interest argument.

Despite any of his counter claims, Pierce said before Monday’s meeting that the vote would be 4-1 against the lease.

During Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Mike Caskey framed discussions about a lease as a larger issue than simply one instance.

“I guess we are talking more about the commerce side and not the political side,” Caskey said.

He questioned whether commissioners would set a precedent by denying the Republican lease. Commissioners Vice Chairman Jim Greene and Commissioner Judy Klusman said the board had previously decided it wouldn’t rent space to outside groups until finalizing which county departments would relocate to West End Plaza.

Before commissioners denied the lease, Edds and Pierce engaged in an unusually tense exchange. It started when Pierce recommended that commissioners decide immediately whether the Republican Party could lease space. He said local Republicans hoped to open a headquarters by June 1. Waiting to decide until a later meeting would put the party in a time crunch, he said.

“I’m just looking at it from the standpoint of we need a decision tonight,” he said. “We need a decision, yes or no, tonight. If it’s no, then it’s no and y’all can deal with it.”

An extended pause separated Pierce’s statement from Edds’ response.

“Can you define, ‘y’all can deal with it?’ ” Edds asked.

Pierce said the commissioners opposing the lease would need to explain why to the local Republican Party. Pierce emphasized he wouldn’t vote no and wouldn’t have to explain himself. All five commissioners are Republicans. More than one commissioner sits on the party’s executive committee.

After a pause, Edds responded again.

“If we vote yes, will you promise that the threatening emails and texts will stop?” Edds asked Pierce.

Immediately, Pierce said he wouldn’t make such a promise.

“I will not make any certain promise to you about anything based on the information I have presented,” he said.

Greene then “called the question,” meaning commissioners would vote immediately on the lease. After the lease failed, Edds asked that the meeting’s minutes show that county commissioners support the local Republican Party, and “looks forward to working with them on whatever venue they pick.”

The Rowan County Republican Party Executive Committee was scheduled to meet Monday evening to decide on a location for its headquarters.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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