07/13/08 — Duplin commissioners argue over speakers

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Duplin commissioners argue over speakers

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 13, 2008 2:00 AM

KENANSVILLE -- Squab-bling over agenda speakers continues to dog county commissioners and has prompted county Manager Mike Aldridge to say that it appears it is time for him to draft a policy addressing the issue for commissioners to consider.

Commissioner David Fussell was on last week's agenda to talk about the economy and the county school system's ranking and test scores. But when it came his time to speak, Fussell called on Dennis Clark of Wallace to speak on his behalf.

Commissioner L.S. Guy objected.

Guy said he had "a lot of respect" for Fussell, but that he did not think it appropriate for Clark, who is a regular at board meetings, to speak on Fussell's behalf.

Fussell responded that it was "not uncommon" for an agenda speaker to call on consultants to speak in their stead.

"He is my consultant," Fussell said.

Fussell said he invited Clark because Clark had had the time "to do a lot of research that I haven't had the time to do."

"I have had the opportunity to listen to Mr. Clark," he said. "I have asked Mr. Clark to come in and speak for the citizens of Duplin County about the concerns of our citizens with the quality of education."

Guy asked that the presentation be deferred until the board's next session. However, Fussell said that if Clark were not allowed to speak, "Then I will do it myself."

"That's fine, you are a commissioner, you are on the agenda," Guy said.

Guy made a motion to table the issue, but it was several minutes before he was able to get a second. Board Chairman Harold Raynor made the second.

Commissioner Cary Turner said he understood what Guy was saying.

He also expressed concern about how the presentation could affect the mediation process between commissioners and the board of education over the level of local funding.

"That may not be wise," he said and asked county attorney Wendy Sivori for her opinion.

"Anybody has a right to be on the agenda," she said. "I know commissioners have expressed wanting an opportunity to review what was going to be on the agenda before it was placed on the agenda.

"Under that I can understand Mr. Guy's concerns. At issue is that the agenda says Mr. Fussell is the speaker and I wouldn't want anything that Mr. Clark is saying to be represented as something that Mr. Fussell is saying."

Fussell said he had given Aldridge a letter stating that the presentation would be about education and economic development.

"I have no idea what he (Clark) will say," Guy insisted.

"You had no idea what I was going to say," Fussell added.

"It can only be the two items listed," Commissioner Zettie Williams said.

"I would not know what he is going to say or what you are going to say, but I know what the attorney has advised us so we need to proceed with caution," Guy said.

Aldridge said such discussion had the "potential to derail the mediation. We have to proceed with caution."

Guy's motion failed on a 2-4 vote with Guy and Turner voting "yes."

Commissioner Reginald Wells, who did not vote, chastised his fellow board members for reprimanding him last month for suggesting that agenda speakers be required to provide information beforehand about their topics.

"I said that three weeks ago, four weeks ago and you all scolded me for saying that," Wells said. "You are contradicting yourselves. You fussed me out for saying that, and now you are going forward with it. Let's be consistent."

Mrs. Williams said the board did discuss having information about a speaker's topic prior to a board meeting.

However, she said commissioners did not discuss "the issue in question of having someone to speak for someone else. We have not talked about substituting. There is no policy to follow whether you feel I am right or wrong."

"I feel you are wrong," Guy said.

She went on to make a motion that in the future only the person listed on the agenda could speak.

Wells said some agenda speakers do have others with them to speak as well.

"I think we might have to refine (that motion)," he said.

The motion failed to garner a second and Clark was allowed to proceed.

"My apologizes to the citizens of Duplin County and to Mr. Clark in particular," Fussell said. "I do feel embarrassed that people are going to be led to think that their opinions won't be welcomed by this board and this discussion that just ensued just affirmed that in a lot of people's minds, including myself."

Aldridge said he did not think any resolution had been reached on the issue.

"It has kind of been the practice to ask persons asking to be on the agenda to provide some information," he said. "Sometimes that is successful, sometimes it's not."

Aldridge said he would look into developing some type of policy for commissioners to review that hopefully "would prevent such disagreements from cropping up in the future."

"The board has got to have the flexibility to hear from the public and not give the appearance of trying to hinder the public from speaking or to censor anyone," he said. "If one commissioner knows about something coming up, I want them all to know."