Thursday, October 24, 2013 12:00 AM
Two challenge incumbent mayor
Middlesex commissioner, former police chief say town administrator wields too much power
By Corey Friedman | Times Online Editor
MIDDLESEX — Fearing a consolidation of power, two challengers want to take the mayor’s gavel away from the town administrator.
Middlesex Commissioner Dale Bachmann and former police chief Vennie Brock are running against incumbent Mayor Luther "LuHarvey” Lewis in next month’s town election. Both hopefuls said Lewis’s dual role as an elected official and the town’s salaried executive constitutes a conflict of interest.
"We’ve got too much power centralized right now,” Brock said. The rest of the board is just letting (Lewis) have his way. I don’t think that’s how it should be.”
Lewis is one of three Middlesex Board of Commissioners members who also is employed by the town. Bachmann supervises the public utilities department and Commissioner Cherrye Davis is the town librarian.
Brock said each board member’s paid position undermines the public’s trust in his or her judgment as an elected official. Bachmann said his job doesn’t clash with his duties as a commissioner.
"My position as utilities supervisor is a little bit different because I still answer to the board,” Bachmann said. "The difference is with the position they created for the town administrator, he controls all the information that the board gets. That’s what I think is a serious conflict of interest.”
Bachmann said Middlesex added the town administrator post about seven years ago. He said similarly sized towns, including nearby Bailey, entrust administrative responsibilities to the town clerk.
"I would like to see the position of town administrator abolished,” Bachmann said. "We don’t need it. The mayor can oversee things and give some direction to things, but there’s no reason the town clerk can’t see that things are handled.”
Lewis, who is seeking re-election, said there’s nothing wrong with elected officials working for the town "as long as the people involved are able to separate the two.”
"Even though I am elected and am the CEO of the town of Middlesex, I work at the direction of the Board of Commissioners,” Lewis said in a written statement. "I cannot make a motion nor do I get to vote on a motion unless there is a tie and I am called upon by the board to vote.”
Lewis said he’s kept commissioners in the loop and even sought direction from the board on some day-to-day management decisions that fall to the town administrator.
"I have duties that allow me to make some decisions on my own, such as policy and zoning regulations and personnel problems, but sometimes, even some of these go to the board for direction,” he said.
PUBLIC RECORDS FEES
Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office is investigating a Middlesex policy allowing the town to charge up to $26 per hour for copies of public records if the requests take more than 30 minutes to fulfill. Cooper and District Attorney Robert Evans said the fees might violate the N.C. Public Records Act.
Commissioners passed the fees by a unanimous vote in January. Lewis has been a staunch defender of the policy and says he believes the fees are allowed under state law.
Brock said the service fee, which is added to the 20 cents per page Middlesex charges to copy public documents, is part of a disturbing pattern of town leaders trying to keep residents in the dark.
"Their fees for copies at the present time are a little bit outrageous and outlandish in my opinion,” Brock said. "It’s kind of meant to discourage people from asking for something.”
Brock said he also is "disgusted” with the abundance of closed sessions the board enters during public meetings. The board met behind closed doors for about half of last week’s two-hour town meeting.
"I’d like to have a little more open form of government,” he said. "If somebody asks for a copy of something, I think they should get it. Within reason, I don’t think we should even charge for making the copy.”
Bachmann, who voted for the service fees in January, said Monday that he’d support an effort to repeal them.
"We need to move forward and we need to just abolish it,” he said. "We need to just back up. It’s served nobody.”
Attorneys for the North Carolina Press Association say the Middlesex fees are unlawful and would likely be struck down if challenged in court.
Cooper expressed "real concerns” about the policy earlier this month and said the N.C. Department of Justice would investigate to determine if the public records law is being broken.
GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT
Lewis said he has a proven track record of bringing business to Middlesex and working to help the town grow.
He worked with Nash County officials to develop the Middlesex Corporate Centre and helped Nash Health Care’s Middlesex Powell Medical Clinic open as the center’s first occupant.
Lewis said he saved the town more than $60,000 in health care costs with no change to employee premiums through competitive carrier shopping. He also worked to bring water treatment company Pennco and East Coast Packaging to the former Fawn Plastic site, he said in a written statement. The businesses brought about 35 jobs to Middlesex.
Lewis said he helped the town extend its water lines to offer service to the Free Will Baptist Children’s Home, which is north of the Middlesex town limits.
Bachmann said he’d do a better job of recruiting both new businesses and more residents to grow the town’s tax base.
"There’s nothing wrong with being a bedroom community to Raleigh,” he said. "We have the infrastructure. We have the land available.”
Bachmann, who’s owned several small businesses and started buying rental property in Ohio at age 19, said his understanding of both the business world and public utilities would serve him well as mayor.
"I’m a nuts and bolts kind of guy,” he said. "I understand the water and sewer issues, and I think that makes me very qualified to be mayor. I have a good sense of what our responsibilities are.”
Brock, who served as Middlesex’s chief of police from 1984-2000, said the town needs to invest in its police department if it expects to grow.
"They’ve got old junk cars,” he said. "Every one of them’s got more than 100,000 miles on it.”
RAPPORT WITH RESIDENTS
The mayor and commissioners have feuded with some Middlesex residents who speak during a portion of town meetings reserved for public comment, sometimes answering speakers’ criticisms in heated exchanges.
All three mayoral candidates said they’d like to see the Board of Commissioners’ relationship with residents improve.
"I just have a real problem with this confrontational attitude that exists in Town Hall,” Bachmann said. "It’s embarrassing. It’s unproductive. I think that’s the biggest thing that not only bothers me, but bothers a great deal of people in town.”
If elected, Bachmann said he’d propose adding an informal 30-minute public forum before each town board meeting to allow residents and commissioners to exchange ideas.
"I’d rather sit down with a cup of coffee and a cookie and talk to somebody than say, ‘Let me tell you what we’re going to do,’” he said.
Bachmann’s seat on the Board of Commissioners is up for grabs in the Nov. 5 municipal election, so he’ll lose his place at the table if he’s defeated in the mayoral race.
If he takes over as mayor, Bachmann said he plans on keeping his job as town utilities supervisor.
"I would like to just go on doing my utilities work,” he said. "Some people may have a problem seeing the mayor on the back of the garbage truck, but I guess they’ll just have to live with that.”
Brock said he was reluctant to run for office but decided doing so was the best way to bring about changes at Town Hall.
"I don’t really particularly want to be mayor,” he said, "honestly, I do not. But with what’s going on right now, I want to see change. It’s a mess up here.”
A Duplin County native with law enforcement in his blood — both of his brothers retired as small-town police chiefs — Brock said the town board’s tense relationship with residents is due at least in part to the consolidation of elected offices and paid positions.
"What’s the old saying, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely?’” he said. "Now, that’s for sure.”
Lewis said he’d like to see communication between residents and commissioners improve.
"I feel that we have always brought forth an atmosphere of respect at our meetings,” he wrote. "A lot of the comments that have been made at our meetings could have been answered with a phone call if that call had been made. We are now and always have been ready to answer any question from any resident.”
Lewis said his history of working with local businesses and governments make him the best man for the job.
"As we move forward, Middlesex needs a strong leader who is already involved in what’s going on here,” he wrote.
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