State board that controls Spring Lake's finances won't OK funds to hire Jones as new town manager

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Friday, October 14, 2022
Board managing Spring Lake finances won't pay to hire new town manager
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State Treasurer Dale Folwell said he will not approve the funds to hire ousted Kenly town manager Justine Jones for the same role in Spring Lake.

SPRING LAKE, N.C. (WTVD) -- State Treasurer Dale Folwell said Thursday that he will not approve the funds to hire Justine Jones as Spring Lake's new town manager saying it was "not in the best interest" of the community.

"Our primary goal is to save Spring Lake from drowning and return the town to financial health and operational stability," Folwell said. "New and unsettling information has come to light about the past employment history of the individual who was offered the job. That information does not generate confidence that she is the right fit at this time to lead Spring Lake."

The Spring Lake Board of Aldermen voted 3-2 on Monday to hire Jones, one of two finalists for the job. She was scheduled to assume the duties on Oct. 24.

Jones most recently was the town manager in Kenly, and her tenure imploded in a firestorm of public controversy when the town's entire police force, including the police chief, resigned citing hostile working conditions. Two other town officials also quit.

She was ousted from the job in Kenly on Aug. 30 after an investigation into complaints about her management of the town. She was in that role for three months before her contract was terminated.

Ousted Kenly town manager responds to her dismissal after only 3 months on the job

"The findings didn't really justify a toxic environment," Kenly Mayor Tooie Hales said in August. "And so again, our decision to terminate the contract is not solely based on the investigation, but there are a lot of other factors, and we had to look for the best way to move forward for the town."

Folwell said in a statement that "It has since been learned that Jones also had a rocky employment relationship" with Richland County, South Carolina.

After Richland County fired her, Jones filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint that was dismissed, and then sued the county, Folwell noted.

Folwell said he does not approve the hiring of Jones out of concern about the potential for legal and financial liabilities and potential adverse impact on town morale.

"The town does not need a distraction from the important work they are doing to return the town to fiscal health," he said.

Spring Lake had had its own financial troubles.

State Auditor Beth Wood recently found more than $500,000 in misappropriated funds from Spring Lake. Other questions about missing town property remain unanswered, Folwell said.

A state audit in 2016 also found mismanagement of the town's finances.

Amid growing concern that the town was in danger of defaulting on its debt payments, the Local Government Commission (LGC) took control of Spring Lake's finances, voting in October 2021 to impound the town's books and records and oversee and direct all its financial affairs,

Folwell, who chairs the LGC, said its staff has not been provided any information about the proposed salary and benefits for the town manager position.

He also refuted public reports that the LGC had approved a list of candidates that included Jones.

"Although our staff was silent on this hiring decision, on matters this important, we should never assume that silence is consent," Folwell said. "We expect the Board of Aldermen to act like professionals and to serve their constituents with the high degree of stewardship and accountability expected of elected officials. In turn, we strive to treat them in a professional manner with respect for their office. It is our desire to allow the Board to make the best decisions possible for all taxpayers and residents. However, due to the town's past inability to stay on course, they are under our power of the public purse, and I believe it is necessary to oppose this selection in the best interests of the community."

On Thursday evening, Spring Lake Mayor Kia Anthony released a statement saying she was disappointed with the developments.

"I want to express my extreme disappointment with the manner in which State Treasurer Dale Folwell made and communicated his decision not to fund the contract of Justine Jones for Town Manager of Spring Lake," Anthony wrote. "Since the Local Government Commission (LGC) took over the Town's finances, the Board of Aldermen and I, along with the Town staff, have worked tirelessly to correct deficiencies and to meet every benchmark and goal set by the LGC.

"Throughout the search process for a new Town Manager, the staff at the LGC were made aware of the candidates for the position. Moreover, the Town's decision to interview and consider Ms. Justine Jones was lauded by the LGC based on her qualifications. Despite being aware that Ms. Jones was one of two finalists, Treasurer Folwell and the LGC did not express any concerns regarding her past employment history prior to today's press release.

"Additionally, Treasurer Folwell has failed to share the "new and unsettling" information that he alleges he has regarding Ms. Jones, when he discovered said information, and how he discovered said information. The Town deserves to know this. Also, Treasurer Folwell did not have the courtesy to discuss this matter with the Town prior to making his decision, nor did he alert the Town of his decision prior to making it public. The Board and I learned of his decision through the media. The Town of Spring Lake and its residents deserve better."

The mayor said a special meeting has been called for Monday at 6 p.m. to discuss the matter.


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