GARLAND — Residents urged the Garland Board of Commissioners and the town’s mayor to work together, and as part of local programs, in a civil and open way Tuesday as the mayor publicly hoped for an end to the “drama” that has engulfed board meetings in recent weeks.
At the end of Tuesday’s special session, at which an audit report was also given (see story in Friday’s edition), guidelines for the public comment portion of Garland town meeting were laid out.
“We’d just like to emphasis this is a very important part of our board meetings, that we give our citizens an opportunity to be heard,” said Mayor Winifred Murphy, before going over guidelines that addressed pre-registration, time allotment, conduct and presentation of any written materials prior to meetings.
Three people spoke during the public comment portion, sharing concerns about the board and the recent conflict, as well as an unheeded public records request for a speech given by Murphy last week. In that 20-minute statement, she called out commissioners for their actions at the board’s Dec. 11 meeting and a closed session that followed, in which she said she was “verbally attacked” before three commissioners stormed out.
Nakachia Smutko said she was shocked upon reading about the developments at last week’s regular meeting.
“When I read about the December meeting in The Sampson Independent, I was embarrassed,” said Smutko. “This town is supposed to be where greatness grows. We’re supposedly on an upswing from a whirlwind year, where we lost a mayor and a commissioner and almost went bankrupt. Just reading about how commissioners storm out of a meeting due to the mayor not stopping someone from giving their opinion that didn’t favor them is unacceptable.”
At the Dec. 11 meeting, a citizen lauded Murphy for her efforts to help the town but chided the lack of attendance by board members at a tree-lighting ceremony in early December. A heated back-and-forth ensued between two commissioners and the citizen, during which Murphy pounded the gavel and told commissioners it was a public comment portion. At least three of the commissioners took further issue with Murphy during a closed session, which led to them storming out.
In her statement last week, Murphy noted the importance of transparency and open government. She said the “criticism and verbal attack” she endured in closed session should have been done in open session.
Garland resident and longtime, now-former commissioner S.J. Smith said he came to the town hall repeatedly last week and asked for a copy of the minutes, notably the speech given by Murphy, but was refused.
“You had carried it home to make some changes is what I was told,” Smith told Murphy. “I came back the next day and you said you had it at the house, and would bring it. The next time they gave me the runaround that I had to get your permission. I’m just wondering ‘why?’ Do you want to control the citizens out here like you control the board?”
Murphy thanked him for his comments. Smith again asked about the meeting minutes. Murphy said they were not completed, and staff was still working on the December minutes. Smith asked about the speech.
“My speech is my personal notes,” the mayor said.
“You read them out here in a meeting though, didn’t you?” Smith replied.
Murphy said the prepared speech was not presented verbatim, with some portion omitted and others added. “What I said is not really what was on that piece of paper.”
“Well, you said aplenty, I think,” Smith said. “So, you can’t get a copy of anything you say in a public meeting?”
“Not at this time,” she said.
The importance of open government and public comments were highlighted as part of Murphy’s address. On Tuesday, detailed guidelines were offered for residents sharing opinions as part of open meetings.
According to the guidelines, an individual may not address the board without permission of the chairperson. Speakers must identify themselves by name before speaking and state the subject of their comments. If time permits, individuals who have not pre-registered may also be permitted to address the board.
Each individual will be allowed 10 minutes — a modification from the 3-5 minutes proposed — and may be granted more time to finish a presentation. Those making remarks that are “repetitive, slanderous or otherwise inappropriate for a public meeting of the board” will be asked to stop. If they continue, they may be ordered to leave and a law enforcement officer may remove them if deemed necessary.
A sheriff’s deputy was present for the majority of Tuesday night’s meeting.
Smutko said the negative publicity makes the board look “weak and inefficient,” not only to Garland citizens but to other towns.
“This is what Sampson County is seeing from our town, and we have a lot more to offer than all this negativity,” Smutko said. “If you all can’t work together, it’s just going to go downhill.”
Board members have the responsibility to be the voice for the citizens, and it is the role of citizens and taxpayers to aid town leaders in reminding them of important issues. All should be done in a respectful manner, she said.
“The board has more responsibility than ever, because our town was on the brink of being bankrupt due to lack of oversight,” said Smutko. “Thankfully, since the changing of the guard, we have hope in sight. While it seems like it’s more tedious work, others see it as responsible citizens taking action to move this town in a better direction. As a citizen, I want a transparent government and I want one with all the commissioners giving a helping hand, not just in the meetings. You always won’t agree on everything, but you have to be respectful of each other and of the citizens.”
Joyce Miles prefaced her comments by saying she meant them to be taken not in a negative light, but “in a positive way for the betterment of the community and for the citizens we represent.”
Miles, who was accompanied by Brenda Cromartie as the N.C. STEP leadership team, raised issues about the perceived lack of participation at N.C. STEP (Small Towns Economic Prosperity) community meetings, held to brainstorm, develop and implement community development projects.
“We come before you with concerns of not having commissioners’ participation, care and attendance in the N.C. STEP Community Leadership Team meetings,” said Miles. “There seems to be a lack of wanting to be part of the hard work the N.C. STEP team is doing for the town of Garland and its citizens. We spend many days and nights thinking and discussing how we can make the place we love to live a better place to live. We give up our time, effort and commitment to help invest in a place we call home.”
Miles said it is an effort that is not whole without the board’s involvement. She implored the board to be more hands-on in the process, paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King.
“We still have a dream for Garland, and onward, upward and forward strive to better this community,” said Miles. “Your input is deeply needed into how we shape the future of Garland.”
Murphy shared her hope that the town would get past any divisiveness and move forward addressing the needs of the citizens and the community. She said she felt that sentiment was shared by commissioners.
“We’re going to work together in a peaceful way,” said Murphy. “We will have disagreements, but we have high expectations. We’re hoping that the drama will end, because when we have negative stuff we can’t get to the positive. I look forward to continuing to work with this board and the citizens in the future months to come.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.