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Jackson Republicans push for commissioner removal

Jackson Republicans push for commissioner removal

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners has gathered to conduct official business on 14 days since June began, but Commissioner Mickey Luker has been physically absent from these meetings more often than he’s been present. Now, his party would like to see him removed from his seat and replaced with somebody who will fill the chair more often.

“We really truly feel that southern Jackson County — supplying a very, very large percentage, more than the rest of the county combined, in money for the county — today we’ve got no representation in the county,” said Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republicans and a Cashiers resident.

Slaughter said a group of Republican residents plans to attend the next regularly scheduled commissioners meeting — at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15 — to ask that commissioners remove Luker from his seat and replace him with someone who will be more present in county affairs.

Reasons for removal

It is extremely unusual and nearly unheard of to remove a commissioner from office prior to the end of a term, but Slaughter pointed to a September 2013 post from Coates’ Canons, a respected blog from the University of North Carolina School of Government, to show that such removals — achieved through a process called amotion — are possible. Post author Frayda Bluestein, David M. Lawrence Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government at the school, wrote that, while the last such removal hadn’t occurred since 1935, in a 2013 case Special Superior Court Judge James Gale ruled that amotion is lawful “so long as such procedure includes notice and hearing and is based upon sufficient competent evidence demonstrating reasonable and just cause for removal.”

Mark Letson, a Cashiers resident who hopes to see Luker’s seat, said that in his view, failing to show up for meetings is reason enough for removal.

“Regardless of whether you phone in or not, it’s important that the representative that was voted on attends the meetings, the work sessions, beyond just a phone call to engage people with pros and cons and how you feel about whatever issue is being debated,” said Letson. “You want that one-on-one contact. That’s what he signed up for. That’s what he should fulfill.”

Commission Chairman Brian McMahan, a member of the board’s Democratic majority, sees it differently. While he wishes Luker was more active on the board, McMahan said, he is still phoning in most of the time and therefore participating on some level. And because there is no legally enshrined attendance requirement for county commissioners, it’s hard to argue that the results of the vote that put Luker in office should be overturned due to lack of attendance. At the congressional level, said McMahan, it’s common for elected officials to miss multiple sessions and committee meetings.

“While it is possible, it still is a very unsure process that’s complicated and in which I do not want to participate,” McMahan said of the removal option. “I don’t think Commissioner Luker has rose to the level, has done anything at this level that warrants his removal from office.”

In her post, Bluestein is explicit that, while there is no clear legal standard as to what qualifies as grounds for removal, amotion is for extreme cases only.

“It’s clear from the prior North Carolina cases and from Judge Gale’s order that removing an elected official requires more than simply poor performance,” Bluestein wrote. “It may be appropriate to think of the standard as just cause ‘plus.’ The order articulates a good reason for a heightened standard: ‘(I)t seems clear that a court called upon to (review an amotion decision) will necessarily be faced with achieving the balance between the extraordinary concept of overturning the results of an election and a set of facts which can also be extraordinary in its presentation of how an elected official has acted or failed to act so as to hamper the functioning of the office to which he or she was elected or to create safety, security or liability concerns arising from his or her action or inaction in office.”

Commissioner Ron Mau, Luker’s fellow Republican on the board, said that, while he feels like Luker’s absence is a problem, he isn’t certain that it’s an issue the board should resolve by removing him. Despite Luker’s absence, the board’s been making progress on a good many items on Mau’s to-do list, and Mau can’t think of any instance in which Luker’s limited participation caused a vote to go differently than it otherwise would have or held up a project. However, said Mau, he understands why constituents are concerned.

“My preference would be if Mr. Luker feels like he can’t do the job, then he would resign,” said Mau.

Luker and Mau were both elected in 2016 with terms ending in 2020. According to state statute, were Luker to leave the board now, the person appointed to replace him would serve the remainder of the term. That person would have to be, like Luker, a Republican from District 4 in southern Jackson County, with commissioners required to appoint the person recommended by the Jackson County Republicans’ executive committee.

Disappearing act

Regardless of whether Luker’s spotty attendance constitutes grounds for removal, it certainly constitutes an aberration from typical commissioner behavior.

Of the 14 days in the past four months when commissioner meetings have been held, Luker has been present in person for only three. He called in via speakerphone for half the meetings and was completely absent from the remaining four. While the Aug. 6 meeting counts as a call-in under that tally, Luker was absent from the short public hearing that preceded the regularly scheduled meeting.

Luker’s record stands in stark contrast to that of the other four commissioners. Over the same period, none of them missed any meetings at all, with the exception of Commissioner Boyce Deitz, who missed a public hearing Sept. 3 in which nobody delivered comment but was present for the regular meeting that immediately followed it. Deitz also participated via speakerphone July 6, as did Mau June 18.

The Sylva Herald questioned Luker’s attendance record in a July 17 story, at which point Luker had been absent from two meetings and called in on five dates since the beginning of the year.

“I took a vacation, the first one I’ve taken, and we were gone for about three weeks,” Luker told the Herald. “It has probably been four or five years at least, and then you finally take a vacation and you get bashed for it.”

However, Luker’s absences did not stop after the Herald’s July 17 story and in fact have only accelerated. In the three months since, he’s missed three meeting dates, phoned in for another three and been present only twice. Luker did not return multiple requests for comment on this story, and according to Slaughter he’s just been generally hard to get a hold of. One of the last times he talked to Luker, said Slaughter, was during a conversation when Luker said he no longer wanted to be a commissioner.

“It’s been about four or five months ago Mickey came to me and he said, ‘Ralph, I’m not going to continue with a commissioners position.’ He said, ‘If you find someone to replace me, I will resign from the commissioners’ seat,’” said Slaughter.

If Luker had produced a resignation letter, the process for replacing him would be easy. The party would put forth a nominee to fill the seat, commissioners would be asked to confirm it and that person would serve through the end of the term in 2020. But he has not submitted a resignation letter, and according to Slaughter and Letson he’s also not answering his party’s attempts to contact him. For Letson, that lack of communication has been the tipping point in moving forward with efforts to remove Luker.

“If you can’t make contact with someone, it’s hard to determine if they’re interested in keeping that position or leaving, and that’s been a struggle for us,” said Letson. “I believe just in terms of we want representation for our end of the county. That’s our number one goal, and currently our representative is not helping us fulfill that need.”

Relocation, the DOT
and delinquent payments

While it’s clear that meeting attendance hasn’t been Luker’s priority lately, what’s less clear is the reason why.

Luker’s voter registration is tied to an address in the Caney Fork community on East Laporte Acres, and until recently he worked less than a mile from home at Caney Fork General Store, a business he’s owned since 2011.

But he appears to be cutting those ties. The house on East Laporte Acres has been listed for sale since May 21, and Caney Fork General Store has closed. The listing of the house roughly coincides with the beginning of Luker’s attendance issues. While he had missed some meetings prior to May 21 — Luker was absent from the March 14 and April 9 meetings and called in for the March 19 meeting — his lack of physical presence began in earnest after May 21, starting with a May 23 attendance via speakerphone before the calendar turned to June.

In July, he told The Sylva Herald that, contrary to rumor, he did indeed still live in Jackson County but said that “eventually I probably am looking at moving out.” Were he to move out of the county, he would become ineligible to serve as commissioner because that seat comes with residency requirements. In addition to his house, Luker has been selling of a number of other assets as well, with roughly 20 items posted for sale on his Facebook page since March running the gamut from a commercial coffee station to a John Deere tractor.

The closure of Caney Fork General Store follows a saga that began with the N.C. Department of Transportation’s acquisition of right-of-way and easements at the store’s original location as part of its N.C. 107 widening project, starting just south of Western Carolina University and continuing to Tuckasegee. The DOT initially paid $757,800 for the taking, also providing Luker with $533,856 to relocate and re-establish the business at a new location, right across the street.

In January, Luker won a lawsuit alleging that the DOT had underpaid for the property, garnering an additional $642,200, which the DOT delivered in a check cut Jan. 15, according to court documents. Because the DOT did not purchase the entire parcel for the road project — the taking included a permanent right-of-way easement as well as a temporary construction easement and a slope easement — Luker still retains the land where the old store sits. It’s been listed for sale for six months, currently priced at $269,000.

The additional award from DOT came following a year of money-related disagreements between Caney Fork General Store and subcontractors in the relocation. In January 2018, Blitz Estridge of Sylva-based Estridge Electric filed a lien against Caney Fork, later followed by a lawsuit, alleging that Luker still owed him more than $42,000 for work he’d done on the new store location. Another suit, filed by Tillman’s Restaurant Equipment and Supplies in Wayne County, claimed that Luker had paid the company only $55,000 for $94,989 worth of work. In previous interviews, Luker said that in Estridge’s case the unpaid bills were DOT’s fault — DOT and Estridge disagreed — and alleged that Tillman’s had not been fully compensated due to poor quality of work. Tillman’s declined to comment.

Luker said the disputes spurred him to temporarily close his store last winter, beginning in early December and extending into the new year as he waited for DOT to release additional funds from the right-of-way suit. The cases with the two contractors closed in the month following conclusion of the DOT case — Estridge’s Jan. 24 and Tillman’s Feb. 19 — and both ended in voluntary dismissal. Luker did reopen his store but then closed it again over the summer.

Luker’s trouble with unpaid bills extended beyond Estridge and Tillman’s, according to court documents. On May 23, convenience store vendor M.R. Williams filed suit against Luker, alleging that he had written worthless checks totaling $7,955. The company wanted that amount back, plus $50 in interest. Luker was ordered to pay the fees in a pair of judgments issued July 31.

In addition, the N.C. Department of Revenue filed a series of tax liens against Luker on Feb. 19 for delinquent sales and use taxes at Caney Fork General Store totaling $48,170, listing amounts due from 10 months between January 2018 and April 2019. Those fees were paid through Luker’s attorney with a check dated June 28.

Luker did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

 

Commissioner meeting attendance

Since the winners of the 2018 elections were sworn in last December, the five commissioners have missed a cumulative total of 12 meetings and called in 11 times. Subtracting out Commissioner Mickey Luker’s absences and call-ins, the cumulative figures are five and two, respectively.

Mickey Luker: seven absences, nine call-ins

Boyce Deitz: four absences, one call-in

Ron Mau: one absence, one call-in

Gayle Woody: zero absences or call-ins

Brian McMahan: zero absences or call-ins

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