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Cemetery committee chair under fire after whistleblower resignation

Dozens of cars sit on the grass at Green Hill Cemetery last Halloween. Town of Waynesville photo Dozens of cars sit on the grass at Green Hill Cemetery last Halloween. Town of Waynesville photo

On the same day her concerns about a parking issue were published, a Waynesville Cemetery Committee whistleblower resigned after the committee’s chair chastised her via email and made problematic comments about the First Amendment, public records laws and open meetings statutes.

“I think the email is concerning and that we have a committee chair who maybe misunderstands some of the statutes that apply to her committee,” said Martha Bradley, Waynesville’s town attorney. “I would want to make sure that she had accurate information to make sure that she was knowledgeable about how to manage the committee and its work. I think this is an isolated issue with an individual perhaps that needs a bit of information to help guide them in their leadership position.”

On Jan. 24, Lisa Kay Cook contacted The Smoky Mountain News about parking in Waynesville’s historic Green Hill Cemetery, providing a security camera still of cars on the grass off Shelton Street on Halloween. 

Cook said her intent was to start a public discussion over what, if anything, should be done about it. The Cemetery Committee serves in an advisory role to the town’s Board of Aldermen, and meets quarterly. Cook hoped that public input would inform the Committee in advance of its March 21 meeting so that it could make an informed albeit nonbinding recommendation to aldermen. 

Instead, Cook received a scathing email from Cemetery Committee Chair Sharon Franks, reprimanding her for speaking out in the subject. 

“I was dismayed,” Cook said. “The email was fear-focused, ripe with false accusations and everyone was copied on it.”

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In the email, Franks makes several claims that demonstrate an ignorance of a number of open government statutes enshrined in state and federal law, putting the town at risk of legal exposure. Cook said she’d consulted an attorney, but didn’t have plans to file suit. 

“No,” she said. “I am more concerned with the odd secrecy and information control [Franks] asserts.”

Franks begins by telling Cook in the email, obtained by SMN from Cook, that “there are procedures we as a committee must follow before going to the media. As we all are appointed by the Mayor and Board of Aldermen, we must first recognize that we answer to them and need to get their approval before doing anything, be it a simple decision to speaking with the media.”

Bradley, the town attorney, said that there are no such policies or procedures. 

“There’s no mandatory public comment policy that any of the committee members are required to follow,” Bradley said. “A policy prohibiting individual members of the public from expressing their personal opinions would certainly be a violation of individual’s First Amendment rights.”

Further maligning Cook for providing the security cam photo to SMN as proof of her claims, Franks said in the email that the photo of the cars “was not meant to be shared with anyone.”

Bradley said that the photo is, in fact, a public record. 

“It’s not private,” she said. “Any person could come in and request footage from any period, and we would do our best to provide it.”

Cook said she believes information control at any level is dangerous, even in a Cemetery Committee in a small Western North Carolina town. 

“The right to see what our government is doing is one of the most fundamental of our rights,” she said. “The press keeps it in check.”

Franks also expressed dismay that SMN asked an alderman for comment on “a situation he knew nothing about.”

Alderman Jon Feichter was heavily involved in the creation of the Cemetery Committee after a regularly scheduled 2018 cleanup at Green Hill caused a furor among some with relatives buried there. 

When reached by phone for comment on the parking issue, Feichter admitted he wasn’t immediately aware of the incident but didn’t hesitate to add that he thought parking on the grass wasn’t a good idea. Feichter also expressed gratitude that he’d been made aware of the issue. 

Further into the email, Franks makes a surprising statement antithetical to North Carolina’s most basic open meetings laws. 

“When we hold meetings as a committee, it is to talk about issues, come up with a plan or resolution, and then present to the mayor and board,” Franks wrote. “Whatever is discussed in these meetings are to remain in those meetings unless otherwise specified.”

Bradley refuted Franks’ false assertion. 

“Yeah, no,” Bradley said. “That’s definitely not correct.”

Meetings of all public bodies, like the Cemetery Committee, are always open to the public. 

“That’s why they are published on the town’s calendar, and on the town bulletin board in the town hall. Any person is welcome to attend and make notes and then publish that information in any lawful means that they deem appropriate,” Bradley said. “So as far as the content of what is discussed at those meetings being private, that’s not true. All of the minutes and the content of the meetings, the agendas — all of that is public record and a matter of public information.”

Cook was also told in the email that her effort to bring light to the issue was “self-focused” and that it was improper for her to speak out because “the town has a designated person who makes comments or reports to the news media.”

Again, Bradley refuted Franks’ demonstrably false assertion. 

“We do not have a public information officer or media representative or anything like that,” Bradley said. “We do try to collaborate and make sure that we don’t say things that are wrong, but there’s no single person or set policy.”

Finally, Franks takes issue with Cook providing the work email address and phone number of the town’s liaison to the committee, Asset Services Manager Julie Grasty, for publication “without her consent” as the point of contact for those wanting to weigh in on the parking issue. 

Cook did not provide Grasty’s contact information to SMN. Grasty is a town employee. The work emails and phone numbers of town employees and elected officials are public record. 

“I think that most of those are on the town website,” Bradley said. 

Franks concludes her email by doubling down on her claim that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to the members of her cemetery committee. 

“I believe you owe [Grasty] as well as members of this committee an apology for going beyond the protocol and speaking with the media,” Franks said. 

“The cemetery is obviously a sensitive issue for a lot of people,” said Bradley. “There are a lot of loved ones buried there and people do have strong opinions about the cemetery so it’s understandable how much emotion the story evoked, but I along with the rest of the staff of the town will make sure that we work with the committee to help educate them about what their roles are and how to make sure that the public is informed so that we don’t have a contentious public debate about any of those things.”

Cook said she wouldn’t apologize, and that she’d find more productive ways to spend her time in the future. 

“It’s a volunteer gig and I am an outsider,” she said. “I am going to put my energy where it is appreciated. Probably in my vegetable garden.”

Sharon Franks did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. 

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