Downtown Waynesville Association narrowly survives contentious hearing
The Downtown Waynesville Association has been in the fight of its 36-year political life since Waynesville aldermen refused to renew the group’s contract back in June, but after a highly unusual special called meeting on Aug. 12 where the DWA narrowly avoided the death penalty, aldermen have decided to give the beleaguered organization yet another chance, putting the group on life support for 90 days.
Founded in 1985, the Downtown Waynesville Association administers the Town of Waynesville’s Municipal Service District (MSD) and directs revitalization activities. It’s funded largely through an additional property tax levied on properties in the district.
The DWA’s longtime executive director, Buffy Phillips, had recently come under scrutiny for a litany of management, performance and transparency concerns and barely survived an attempt to remove her from the position in 2018.
With the expiration of the DWA’s five-year contract imminent, Waynesville aldermen held a public comment session on April 27 to gather community input regarding the organization’s performance.
It was there that a group of concerned business owners said it would compete with the DWA through the RFP process for the right to manage the MSD. That group later disappeared, but the problems raised by the group didn’t, so Alderman Anthony Sutton requested five years’ worth of the group’s public records — financial statements, meeting notes and other documents that state law requires public bodies to retain.
Sutton’s request largely mirrors a public records request made by The Smoky Mountain News more than a month prior. Then, as now, SMN’s request has gone unfulfilled.
That meeting also revealed confusion as to whether or not the executive director had announced her retirement; a story published in The Mountaineer on March 27 said Phillips had made the announcement at the DWA’s most recent meeting.
Phillips didn’t return multiple calls from SMN seeking confirmation, and when board members Leigh Forrester, Olivia Carver and chair Carolyn Brunk were reached, they refused to comment on Phillips’ status.
In June, aldermen revealed that the DWA was the only group to submit a proposal to manage the MSD, but the proposal was riddled with incomplete sentences as well as inaccurate and outdated information, including listing a board member who was deceased, an elected official who had been voted out of office more than 18 months prior, and letters of support from 2016.
The proposal did, however, include Phillips’ resignation letter.
Sutton made clear that the proposal was insufficient when he addressed the board that night.
“I have lots of questions about the proposal, also the fact that I still haven’t received all the minutes that were requested,” Sutton said. “I would propose that we do a joint meeting of the entire board of aldermen and [DWA] officers and that we prepare questions and have them readily available for the executive staff to answer at the time of the meeting, because right now I do not feel comfortable proceeding with negotiations with them, as is.”
That’s what brought the board of aldermen together with some of the DWA’s board on Wednesday, Aug. 12, at the Waynesville Recreation Center, where Sutton started out with a scathing review of the documents he had been able to obtain from the DWA.
Grasping a thick binder with dozens of colorful post-it notes hanging off its edges, Sutton launched into a scathing summary of what he’d found — or rather, not found — within it.
He began by asking the most basic questions of the board. Who’s on the board? How many are on the board? How often do you meet? What’s your quorum?
Brunk, owner of the Oak Park Inn and chair of the DWA’s executive board, replied with a series of conflicting answers and a general lack of knowledge over who, exactly, was or is on the group’s board.
Sutton asked when the last time the board met, because he hadn’t received meeting minutes since at least April. He also asked about the search committee responsible for hiring the new executive director, and the number of people the group had interviewed. First, the answer was zero, then it was one, then, two. Brunk also said that she’d received three resumes in the last week, but hadn’t yet interviewed them.
“Until we have a contract it’s really hard to bring someone in,” Brunk said, noting that without assurance the group would even be in existence in the coming months, some candidates were reticent to apply.
Sutton then directed his attention to the meeting minutes in his binder, which he said were “rife with inaccuracies,” noting issues that were raised in meetings that were never followed up on (including an executive director succession plan), minutes from meetings approved by board members who weren’t present at the meeting for which minutes were being approved, and a missing financial audit for 2019 that wasn’t completed until 2020.
“It’s been the last year-and-a-half to two years that things have been slipping,” Brunk told Sutton. Brunk’s been on the board for years, and became chair last year.
Brunk said specifically in response to document requests made by The Smoky Mountain News that she went into the DWA’s office, expecting to find the records readily at hand, and discovered they weren’t there.
The DWA is a public body subject to the same public records and open meetings laws as municipal governing boards, says Frayda Bluestein, the David M. Lawrence Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
In North Carolina, the remedy for a public records request that isn’t fulfilled is in a court of law, and guidance provided by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources says that records of the sort that have been requested by Sutton and SMN — meeting minutes, agenda packets and the like — are to be retained permanently by the custodial organization.
Statutes also provide criminal penalties for the destruction of records, which could mean trouble for the DWA if they’re not available for production. Board members can also be held personally liable.
“As a board you have a responsibility to know what is going on in your organization and get that info to us regularly,” Sutton told Brunk.
Reading from North Carolina General Statutes, Sutton said that the DWA has to account, very specifically, for how it spends its money, and that he’d seen no accounting whatsoever — another violation of state statute.
Although many members professed a deep admiration for Phillips personally and professionally, they didn’t hesitate to throw her under the bus for nearly every concern raised by Sutton.
“We didn’t know that 90 percent of what Buffy was doing was in her head and not on paper and not in a file,” said Brunk, who with the DWA board is charged with oversight of the DWA’s executive director, administration and activities.
Citing “institutional issues that cannot be resolved within the [existing] board,” Sutton then made a motion to bring the MSD under town control, which would leave the DWA as an organization without a mission and, more importantly, without funding.
Under Sutton’s proposal, the MSD would be administered by a town-appointed board like the cemetery committee. It would run the MSD’s Main Street program and benefit from the town’s professional recordkeeping services and document preservation protocols. The executive director would be a town employee, and a cost savings would likely be realized due to economies of scale in health insurance coverage and payroll operations.
Mayor Pro Tem Julia Boyd Freeman seconded Sutton’s motion, opening up the issue for board discussion that included an especially lenient back-and-forth Q & A session with DWA members.
“It makes a lot of sense,” said Morgan Beryl, the new executive director of the Haywood County Arts Council who serves as an institutional representative on the DWA board. “I mean, from a governmental streamlined perspective of sharing resources, using the same systems, if this is one of your most important assets, your Main Street, I think it makes sense for you all to have a pretty large amount of oversight on what’s happening in that arena, and I think as long as the Main Street program is protected and administrated appropriately, I think that’s the most important thing for Waynesville. That’s my personal opinion.”
Alderman Jon Feichter did not agree, calling it a “fairly monumental step” to assume control of the MSD from the DWA and citing his family’s long history of involvement with the group even as he acknowledged the relative disarray within the organization.
“Obviously there is a huge problem and has been a huge problem for quite some time,” Feichter said.
Some of the DWA’s failures are the responsibility of the board of aldermen, according to Feichter, who with Freeman and Mayor Gary Caldwell has served on the board for five years or longer — in some cases, much longer.
Feichter said he opposed Sutton’s motion and asked if the DWA could be given more time to straighten out its act.
“Taking the step of bringing this in-house is not warranted at this point in time,” Feichter said. “I would prefer us to enable the reconstituted DWA to move forward with the changes and a new director. And let’s see where we are a year from now, holding out the notion that we can always bring it in-house if we need to.”
Former longtime Alderman LeRoy Roberson, who was voted out in 2019, was also in attendance, agreed with Feichter, and asked for two more years.
“But it’s been five years of disfunction,” Sutton said.
When it came time for Mayor Caldwell to speak, it appeared as though Sutton might have a majority for his motion, saying that the organization had been “going downhill for quite some time,” and reflecting on the DWA’s most recent street festival.
“I came out Friday night to see how that concert [interim executive director] Beth [Gilmore] was putting on. She done a great job, but she done a great job by herself,” Caldwell said. “There was nobody helping her. She was there alone and her husband [Assistant Chief of Police Brandon Gilmore] was out putting up cones and stuff and our guys, the Town of Waynesville crew, helped set all this up, so it makes sense that it be brought in house – because we do it anyway.”
Alderman Chuck Dickson was noncommittal and said he wasn’t quite ready to vote for Sutton’s motion that night, but that he might be convinced to do so. Freeman said she hadn’t gotten the answers she’d hoped to receive.
After another appeal from Feichter and several minutes of DWA members begging for a reprieve, Freeman rescinded her second on Sutton’s motion and proposed a 90-day window for the DWA to correct its inadequacies, including planning for an executive director and completing a strategic plan.
Freeman also expressed dismay that most of the board, including Vice Chair Jonathan Key, weren’t even present at the all-important meeting.
Brunk then offered to resign from the board if her presence could be seen as an obstacle to preserving the DWA’s legacy.
Caldwell subsequently appointed Sutton to the DWA’s board, replacing former Mayor Gavin Brown, who was still listed as the Town of Waynesville’s institutional member even though he lost the November 2019 General Election to Caldwell and has since left town.
Freeman and other aldermen then agreed to loosen up the 90-day “probation” window, saying it wasn’t meant to be a hard and fast deadline, but went on to demand that the DWA report to the board of aldermen monthly for the immediate future.
Sutton’s motion to bring the MSD under town control then died without the requisite second.
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Interesting. Great reporting.
As a small business owner in the MSD, I would like to applaud Beth Gilmore for her hard work and stepping in to what appears to be quite a mess! Thank you for what you are doing Beth!!! I would also acknowledge that bringing this organization under town control seems to me to be a very logical step! I believe that you would find a great deal of local support and a new, energetic approach to serving the MSD and the community at large!