Spencer facing NAACP investigation following leaked recording

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 23, 2019

SPENCER — The relationship between town staff, particularly Manager Terence Arrington, and the Board of Aldermen bubbled to a boil Monday as the Salisbury-Rowan NAACP announced the start of an investigation and threatened a lawsuit following a leaked recorded phone call between Arrington and board member Sylvia Chillcott.

In the 70-second clip, Chillcott can be heard telling Arrington he is “enough to make someone use profanity.” The call is then interrupted by Chillcott’s spouse, Patsy. After identifying herself, Patsy calls Arrington a vulgar word and said she’d be glad when he was gone.

Arrington, who is African-American, said the incident seemed racially motivated.

“This is outrageous. It’s unfortunate,” he told the Post.

Asked by the Post on Monday, Chillcott said she could not discuss the phone call.

In the audio clip obtained by the Post, Chillcott herself is not heard using profanity toward Arrington.

The clip’s release was followed by a called meeting on Monday at which the board quickly entered into closed session to discuss “personnel matters.” After over an hour behind closed doors, members returned to open session for an agenda item labeled “Reference to elected officials micro-managing staff.”

Mayor Pro Tem Sharon Hovis read a prepared statement regarding what she called “somewhat unbecoming conduct of a fellow colleague on this Board of Aldermen.”

Hovis said the behavior was “indicative of all that is vile and unprofessional” and offered three ways to address the infraction — preparing a written apology for the staff, drafting a resolution and/or seeking training.

No discussion followed her statement, and the board quickly moved to adjourn.

Members of the Rowan County NAACP in attendance Monday expressed outrage over the board’s failure to directly address the phone call.

“(Chillcott) should have been the one to apologize, not (Hovis),” said Salisbury-Rowan NAACP President Gemale Black. “This is simply unacceptable.”

The phone call was “disgusting” and an example of “overt racism” that’s been going on for years, Black said.

He said that the NAACP would conduct a “full investigation” of the town, evaluating audio footage and the town’s diversity in hiring practices to identify disparities and changes that could be made to address the situation.

“(Arrington) isn’t doing this for the money. He’s doing it to bring about change, change that the board and staff aren’t ready to accept,” Black said. “We’re going to put pressure on them to change. … If they don’t do that, then we’ll file a lawsuit.”

A pattern of division

Arrington said the phone call illustrated the tense relationship he’s faced since being appointed town administrator in mid-October.

As a point at which relations started deteriorating between the town’s elected officials and staff, Arrington points to late 2018 conversations about the town’s Park Plaza project. Then new to the town, Arrington raised questions about the board’s decision to purchase parts of the shopping center in which to relocate the town’s administrative and police departments. The two departments currently share a space on Salisbury Avenue.

Arrington expressed concern about the potential that Park Plaza’s owner, PI Holdings, could fail to develop or upkeep remaining retail spaces at the site. In December, the town manager presented alternate plans for the board to consider before proceeding with the $668,000 purchase such as finding a smaller space for the administrative offices and allowing the Police Department to expand into the vacated space.

Some board members and the mayor balked at the idea, saying changing the plan would cost taxpayers money in planning and design costs.

Arrington said that tensions have remained high since, escalating to include the recent phone call of which audio was provided to the Post.

Arrington said that stepping into his role as a town manager had been like “walking into a hornet’s nest.”

“Nobody’s wanting to make any decisions,” said Arrington. “… Things that should be confidential aren’t and things that should be handled transparently aren’t.”

Meanwhile, town board member Howard White sent an emailed resignation to fellow board members on Monday, citing frustrations with the behavior in his email.

“(I’m) bothered by the fact that so many around town are far too aware of what is transpiring given the discussions all took place in closed sessions,” White said. “Just as in the Air Force, I have and will always respect the sanctity of confidentiality of discussions taking place in closed sessions.”

Black said the phone call was indicative of this lack of confidentiality, showing Chillcott’s partner could have been privy to information discussed by board members in prior closed sessions regarding personnel.

“Have they been working to get rid of him for a while?” Black asked. “This certainly sounds like it.”

Moving forward

Anthony Smith — a pastor, local activist and member of the Salisbury-Rowan NAACP — said Monday’s disregard for the call was “institutional and personal prejudice.”

“They use their power to stop a very important topic,” Smith said.

Accordingly, Black said that next steps include the beginning of the NAACP’s investigation of town practices.

“We’ll be back. We’ll be at every meeting, every work session,” he said. “If that door is open we’ll be here. We won’t accept that. … If things don’t change, we’ll bring our state and national (chapters).”

Black said that Chillcott should be held responsible for her actions, adding that her resignation and that of Mayor Jim Gobbel would be warranted.

Gobbel declined to comment on the relationship between staff and the town board, saying, “Things are not as smooth as they could be.”

“We are and we always have been fair to all employees in the town of Spencer. I’ll say that in all sincerity,” he said.

Gobbel said the town would participate willingly in any investigation begun by the NAACP.

“We can’t do anything until an investigation happens,” he said. “We’ll go by all the rules and do our part with all honesty.”