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Aldermen put the brakes on DWA contract renewal

Downtown Waynesville. Downtown Waynesville.

What should have been a simple contract renewal process has turned into an all-out fiasco for the Downtown Waynesville Association, as the group continues to struggle with transparency and professionalism while submitting a contract renewal proposal riddled with errors, oversights and outdated information. 

Longtime DWA Executive Director Buffy Phillips had been credited as the driving force behind the revitalization of Waynesville’s once-rundown downtown, but has come under increasing pressure over the past few years for a perceived lack of performance and poor communication. 

Phillips narrowly survived an attempt by the board of directors to remove her as director in 2018, after complaints from downtown property owners prompted at least one to petition for removal from the Municipal Service District itself. 

During a DWA meeting earlier this year, on March 23, Philips supposedly gave notice of her impending resignation. Multiple phone calls made by The Smoky Mountain News to Phillips from March 24 through 26 were ignored and have yet to be returned, almost 10 weeks later. 

Board Chair Carolyn Brunk also refused to comment on the proceedings of the March 23 meeting when reached by SMN. The board’s secretary, charged with recording the proceedings of the March 23 meeting, said the matter of Phillips’ continuing employment had been discussed but declined to elaborate when reached by SMN and resigned from the board shortly thereafter. 

Another then-board member, Leigh Forrester, told SMN around that time that she was present at the March 23 meeting and that there was no such discussion. The minutes from the meeting, produced by the secretary weeks later, confirm that the issue was discussed at the meeting. 

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Right after the March 23 meeting, SMN made a public records request asking for, among other things, meeting notices and minutes, financial reports and other public records that could shed light on the performance of the DWA in advance of a looming contract renewal deadline of June 30. 

Those records still have not been produced in their entirety, frustrating attempts to keep the public appraised on the group’s management of taxpayer money. 

Despite the veil of silence, members of the DWA including Phillips spoke to the Mountaineer newspaper for a March 27 story praising Phillips and announcing her impending resignation. Mountaineer Publisher Jonathan Key serves as vice chair of the DWA’s executive board. 

On April 28, a public hearing on the DWA’s performance was held by Waynesville aldermen as part of the contract renewal process, which was to be competitive in nature. 

Several DWA board members, including downtown business owner Teresa Pennington and Haywood County Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, showed up to speak positively about the DWA, but aldermen also heard some criticism from Kirkpatrick over the DWA’s lack of direction. 

They also heard criticism from downtown business owner Mike Coble, who voiced concerns about accountability, direction and transparency and said his nonprofit, Start Now LLC, would submit a proposal to be considered alongside that of the DWA for the ongoing management of the Municipal Service District. 

At that time, Alderman Anthony Sutton called for five years’ worth of DWA records, and said he wouldn’t support the DWA’s contract renewal if his request — as well as that of SMN — wasn’t delivered. 

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, maintains that the DWA is a public body subject to the same public records and open meetings laws as municipal governing boards. 

The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural resources says that public records — meeting minutes, agenda packets and the like — are to be retained permanently by the custodial organization. Statutes provide criminal penalties for the destruction of records. 

It’s not clear why the records haven’t yet been produced in full, but that didn’t stop Waynesville alderman from considering the issue of contract renewal at its June 8 meeting. 

Per town staff, the RFP for management of the MSD was published on the town’s website on May 6 or 7, with a deadline of May 28. 

After that three-week period, there was only one respondent — the DWA. 

Coble told SMN June 14 that he’d submitted a list of suggestions to the DWA, including shrinking the size of the board, term limits for board members and a clear resignation announcement from Phillips. Coble says the DWA agreed, and in turn he agreed not to submit a response to the RFP on behalf of Start Now. 

“This is not an us against-them-situation, but this is two different groups coming together for the betterment of the town,” Coble said June 14.  

Additionally, Coble said that the Wall Street beautification project proposed by Start Now will proceed in league with the DWA, and Coble will soon join the DWA’s executive board, at their request. 

The DWA’s renewal proposal  was tendered on the very same day — May 27 — that Phillips formally announced she’d step down from DWA leadership, “effectively [sic] August 6.”

“For the board member partners, property and business owners with whom we have achieved much progress toward revitalization in downtown Waynesville,” reads a fragment from Phillips’ brief statement. 

The rest of the application isn’t much better. 

Financial summaries requested by SMN in March were included in the DWA’s application, despite never being delivered to SMN. 

Six recently penned letters of support were included with the DWA’s application, including one from Forrester. 

Strangely, another 10 letters of support, all written in 2016, were attached to the May 27 application as well, including from the former director of the Haywood Arts Council Lindsey Solomon, former police chief Bill Hollingsed, two duplicate entries from Mast General Store General Manager Melanee Lester, and two duplicate entries from former Haywood economic development guru Mark Clasby, who passed away on May 8. 

Clasby is also listed as the executive board’s “business vitality” member in the DWA’s application. Former Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown, who was voted out of office in November 2019, and subsequently moved to Georgia, is listed as the Town of Waynesville’s institutional board member. 

Forrester, the board member who told SMN that Phillips “ didn’t resign ,” is listed as the board’s bylaws member. Olivia Carver, the secretary who resigned earlier this year, remains listed as the board’s secretary. 

Aldermen were presented with several options in regard to the DWA’s proposal. 

One was to recognize the lone bidder’s RFP and begin contract negotiations. Another was to have town staff compare the proposal with the RFP and recommend changes to align with the board’s goals. Yet another was to have town staff and one or more alderman review the proposal and negotiate a contract. The final option was to call for a joint meeting of the entire board of aldermen with officers of the DWA to work on a contract. 

Alderman Sutton immediately made clear that the DWA would not, as it had hoped, be receiving an immediate renewal on 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 the joint meeting of the entire board of alderman 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.”

Aldermen Julia Boyd Freeman seconded Sutton’s motion for the joint meeting, which passed unanimously. 

Under public meetings law, the town would have to provide appropriate notice of the joint meeting, which would be open to the public. Sutton requested that the meeting not take place until the town could iron out concerns over its own budget (see REVOLT, p. 10). 

As of press time, the joint meeting between the Waynesville board of aldermen and the DWA had not yet been scheduled. 

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