Council upbraids mayor

Jul. 09, 2013 @ 03:31 PM

The Fairview Town Council proposed removing the mayor’s authority over town employees after a discussion about the mayor’s Facebook page that contains criticism about the town.

Last week, council members stated they would hold a closed session to discuss a Facebook page created by Mayor Elizabeth Long, which she named “Fairview, Union County, NC.” According to the state’s open meetings law, topics about elected officials must be discussed in open session.

Resident Beth Rabb spoke during public comments. She said any discussion about Long should be done in open session in accordance with state law.

“Right, if you’re making comments about me, not personnel, I am an elected official just like you are, so if you’re commenting about me or my Facebook page it has to be in open session,” Long said.

“It’s not about no Facebook page, it’s about personnel,” Councilman Arnold Price said.

Price said last week he requested a closed session to talk about Long’s Facebook page. On his request, he wrote “personal” which Fairview Land Use Administrator Ed Humphries assumed meant “personnel.” Price later told the Enquirer-Journal he wrote “personal” because it was not a subject that affected residents and should not be “gossiped” about.

Rabb also said that there are certain personnel issues that state law requires elected bodies to discuss in open meetings.

“Madam Mayor, I’m sure our attorney will let us know if we’re violating any state statutes,” Councilman Bradley Purser said.

Long turned to Town Attorney Joe McCollum.

“Do you have any comment?” Long asked him, but he did not acknowledge the question. Long asked him again.

“No, I’ll wait to hear what it’s about,” McCollum said, trailing off. “Advise you.”

During the later council comment, Price said he is a 51-year Fairview resident and loved the community. Anyone who assumes the council would do something to hurt the town is “dead wrong,” he said.

“But you’re made to believe that this is happening by comment on this Facebook page,” Price said. “Some comments are posted from people who don’t even live in Fairview.”

Long wants to use the page to discuss “personal problems” in public, he said.

“Which by law is supposed to be brought up in closed session to be discussed,” Price said. “This is unethical and may be against the law.”

He asked if Fairvew residents wanted to pay legal fees fighting a lawsuit against the town. He also asked Fairview residents to make up their own minds, not to let “a couple of families” tell them who should be on the town council.

“Now this Facebook account in the town’s name was started in January,” Price said. “And it was started without a discussion or approval of this council.”

Long responded by saying the page is named “Fairview, Union County, NC” to distinguish it from several other communities of the same name. The page is for posting town events, deaths of well-known residents and anything newsworthy. She noted that anyone could start a page bearing Fairview’s name without the council’s permission. She noted other pages like the Indian Trail Watchdog and Waxhaw Watertower, both which regularly posts criticisms of their respective town governments.

“Did they get approval from those councils to use the name?” Price asked.

“Facebook is outside the council’s approval,” Long said.

“You don’t know, do you?” Price said.

Price said she posted “slanderous comments” about the council and Humphries, that the page was not for the town’s benefit, was a platform for the mayor’s political agenda to “become public knowledge.” Any social media account in the town’s name needs to be approved by the council first, Price said. Such a page was “a prime example of slander, discrimination and harassment toward the council and employees of Fairview,” he said.

Price then read a legal definition of harassment and said it is against the law.

“This town does not need to be subjected as a town to this matter and shown on Facebook,” Price said. “I’m willing to work with the mayor and the council, but I do not take lightly the criticism on the internet.”

When he finished, Long asked McCollum to comment.

“On what?” McCollum asked.

Long said she has freedom of speech. Price said everyone in the room did too. Long said anyone else there can start a Facebook page, even him. Price replied that he does not gossip on the internet.

McCollum explained that freedom of speech meant council members can criticize each other. If someone sued over “slander” posted on the page, the lawsuit would target the person who created the page, not the town.

Councilman Purser repeated his full confidence in McCollum warning the council of possible law violations. Purser stated that the “raise” they could gave to Humphries was to reimburse him for medical insurance.

Purser moved to make the website the official Fairview website, something that was established by McCollum earlier in the discussion. The motion stated that “any other social media created in the name of Fairview does not have the approval of the council.”

The council has no copyright on Fairview’s name and therefore cannot ban anyone from creating a page referencing the town, Long said. Purser’s motion passed by unanimous vote.

During a short closed session, the audience and Long left the room. A few people remained outside the closed meeting room. Even with the door closed, voices from inside the meeting room were clearly heard dismissing topics that law required be discussed in open session.

In open session again, Humphries said he approached Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Clontz with the proposal that town staff will answer to the council. According to Fairview’s charter, it is a mayor-council form of government where employees answer to the elected mayor instead of the council majority. Purser said Humphries could no longer be effective in his job while Long acted as his superior.

“It’s just a very detrimental situation,” Purser said. “The relationship, you know, the situation the way I see it, the opinion the mayor has for you, Mr. Humphries. Whereas, on the other hand, it’s obvious that the council supports you, but yet the mayor doesn’t. It’s just a very unfortunate situation.”

It is,” Humphries said. “Is is very stressful.”

Humphries said he will work for the council and in return he liked the suggestion that members would “protect” him when he gets them information they request.

“But I can get hung out there, too, if I do something,” Humphries said.

Such a change would require a revision of Fairview’s charter, the organizational document that incorporated the town.

Clontz lamented his unsuccessful effort to keep peace between the mayor and council. He asked members to vote and not argue with Long in future meetings. But he also said more feedback from Fairview residents would help guide their decisions. Earlier, Price said he has never received a phone call or letter about a town issue in the two years on the council.

“We do need feedback from the community and we need feedback from the whole community,” Clontz said. “Not eight people or ten people.”

“And I’m glad you just said that,” Purser said. “It’s good that we have people who show up, it’s good that we have people that speak, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re representing the opinions of the entire community.”

Purser also pointed out that Long was elected by the people to the office of mayor, and deserves the council’s respect for that reason.

“Respect is earned,” Price said.