East Spencer exploring change in form of government, picks new alderman for Hillian’s seat

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, March 9, 2022

EAST SPENCER — Town officials this week began the process of potentially changing East Spencer’s current council-mayor form of government to a model that puts more power into the hands of a manager.

Each municipality in North Carolina can decide to operate its governmental operations on one of two models, which is outlined in a municipal charter. In a council-manager form, the mayor and council establish the policies and hire a manager to implement those policies and hold statutory authority to hire and terminate employees. With this model, the mayor and council also hires the attorney and clerk directly.

By contrast, in a council-mayor form of government, the mayor and council collectively make decisions about services, revenues and expenditures. Additionally, all personnel fall within their purview.

To pass such a measure, the board is expected to vote on a resolution of intent to pursue the council-manager form of government at its April meeting. A public hearing is required within 45 days of that vote, followed by a final vote of approval that could be made in June.

Town Administrator Michael Douglas was hired to lead the town as administrator in June after Phil Conrad, director of the Cabarrus-Rowan Metropolitan Planning Organization, served in an informal interim role to assist the town in the selection process. James Bennett left the role in February after being hired in October 2019. Before Bennett, Conrad assumed the position in April 2019 from F.E. Isenhour, who had served since 2016. Preceding Isenhour was David Jaynes as well as Macon Sammons Jr., who stepped down in 2015.

Town attorney Tom Brooke said recruiting an administrator for the town was challenging because the council-mayor format is less familiar for many candidates. He said Douglas’ contract includes some additional responsibilities that a manager would typically tackle. However, a formal change in the town charter could make things clearer.

“You’re already really there, basically,” Brooke said.

Douglas, who currently works four days out of the week, said the benefit of a full-time manager is that someone is on-site at all times to manage the town’s business. He added it’s important to consider since the town is slated to receive $23 million from the state to aid the replacement of its water and sewer infrastructure and erase its debt. The town is currently on a watchlist with the Local Government Commission due to financial issues with its water/sewer fund.

“This is not for Michael Douglas. This is for the town of East Spencer,” Douglas said. “Whether I’m here or I’m not here, the town as a whole is at the point where you’re going to need a manager on-site at all times. To manage that $23.3 million that the state has given us, it’s going to be a cumbersome thing and some things are going to be time-consuming.”

Mayor Barbara Mallett agrees. She said it’s past time to solely depend on the “clerk-mayor” style.

“We’re thinking forward. We’re not little East Spencer anymore,” Mallett said. “We’re growing so fast, and for a lot of things, if we don’t have somebody in charge, it can get kind of hairy. You can’t depend on the mayor to do all this. Do we want to stay where we are, or do we want to grow?”

Mayor Pro Tem Shawn Rush said the town “can’t stay complacent forever” and called for the board to get the ball rolling.

But not all board members agreed. Board member Deloris High said she’s conflicted, particularly because she doesn’t feel the board has been adequately briefed on all that’s going on in the town, such as new housing developments. Douglas said while he’s willing to share such news, he keeps the board updated regularly on major news. He added that the board’s focus should be responsible spending and keeping the town out of the news or members in jail for wrongdoing.

Board member Curtis Cowan shared a similar concern, stating that while he leans toward moving to the council-manager style, he worries the manager won’t consult the board before making decisions for the town.

Mallett said it comes down to better communication between Douglas and board members.

Board member Albert Smith said there’s no need to “kick the can” on this because someone is needed in the office five days a week.

No vote was taken, but board members gave Douglas the green light to bring forward a resolution of intent at the April meeting.

Also during the meeting, Smith was sworn in to replace the late Tony Hillian, who died in January. During the 2021 election, Smith finished only one vote behind Hillian and requested a recount. Smith formerly worked at American Century Home Fabrics and filled an unexpired term left by the late Otis Gibson in 2018.

Mallett said Smith’s appointment is a “wonderful opportunity” for the town, crediting him with being an asset even before he ran for office. Mallett said Smith would often show up to Town Hall and start working on whatever needed to be done.

In other business at the meeting:

• The town approved formal responses to three findings from the 2020-21 audit. The town was flagged for the ratio of its unrestricted cash flow in relation to operating expenditures and debt service, along with exceeding the 3% threshold for uncollected property taxes and having no pre-audit process in place. Douglas said the town is required to submit a letter to the LGC outlining how those problems will be addressed, which will include a 2.5% hike on water rates and a partnership with the state’s debt set-off program to obtain unpaid tax revenue.

• The town appointed Salisbury resident Felicia Baldwin-Jones to the East Spencer Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. East Spencer resident Rehida Alexander, who stated she didn’t have a preference for which board she served, was appointed to serve either the Board of Adjustments or Planning Board.

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

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