GARLAND — The town has a new commissioner, pending an oath, after the Garland Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in its selection, opting to forego the application and interview process in replacing Matthew Register, who resigned last week.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the Garland Board of Commissioners accepted the resignation of Register and quickly appointed Michael Strickland. Register, who was not in attendance Tuesday, stated in a Sept. 3 letter that it was with “great regret” he informed the town of his immediate resignation.
Town clerk Jennifer Gray read the letter aloud.
“Over the past few months, it has become more and more difficult for me to give the town the amount of time it demands along with starting a new business and raising a young family,” Register stated. “Initially, it was my hope to serve on the board so I could be a part of a fine group of people dedicated to moving our town forward. However, recent events in my personal life have made me realize that my family has to come first.”
“It is my greatest hope for the town of Garland that, under the leadership of our town officials, its citizens can set aside their differences and continue (to) work together in an effort to move Garland forward in the right direction,” Register stated.
Register’s letter hit on what seemingly was the theme for Tuesday’s meeting — the importance of coming together as a community, at the core of the invocation and mayor’s message that kicked off the meeting. However, whatever good feelings those wishes brought slowly dissolved as the night went on.
After Gray read the letter, Mayor Winifred Murphy then read from the town’s ordinance, Sec. 160A-62, stating that all city officers, whether elected or appointed, shall continue to hold office until their successors are chosen and qualified. The statute does not state a timeline as to when the position shall be filled, but the board, as the body that appointed Register to take the post, must now appoint his successor.
Register was appointed in February 2012 to fill the unexpired commissioner’s term of Murphy, who was elected to the board in 2011 but vacated the seat when she was appointed mayor. The term for Register’s vacated seat expires in 2015. Register and Haywood Johnson, who was appointed to the board the month after Register following Coleman Johnson’s resignation, were both appointed following an application and interview process, one that also included public comment.
“I would like you to consider all of this before making your decision,” Murphy told the board.
The board accepted Register’s resignation.
“I think we should go ahead and replace him as soon as possible,” said Commissioner Ralph Smith.
Johnson mentioned the name of Mike Strickland, who he said has shown interest. Commissioner Denise Toler mentioned Austin Brown as another potential appointee. Smith made a motion to appoint Strickland, seconded by Johnson.
Murphy said town citizens should be able to give public comment or input in the process, with the town advertising the open position and giving residents the chance to apply for the position themselves if they have an interest, just as the last two appointees have done.
“I would encourage and urge you not to rush to judgment tonight on making an appointment,” the mayor said, “but give all the citizens the opportunity to put their name in the hat, fill out an application and do it that way. There’s nothing against Mr. Strickland, it’s just that I think everybody deserves the chance to put their name in the hat. Citizens need to have some input before the decision is made.”
Hearing no comments from the board, Murphy asked for a vote. The board unanimously voted in favor of Strickland, who was not present at the time of the vote.
“So you’re not going to even interview him?” the mayor asked.
“Not if he’s interested in the job,” Smith replied. “I suggest we bring him in the next meeting and swear him in at the next meeting if he’s interested, which he seemed to be.”
“There might be a lot of people that seem to be interested, but have not been given an opportunity,” Murphy said.
Before moving on, Murphy said as mayor she had the option to call for public comment. She asked the audience to give their feedback.
“Everything that happens affects us,” the mayor said. “That’s what we were talking about, is unity and being fair.”
Many called into question the board’s actions and the lack of inclusiveness and transparency by the board. Some residents said the board should not appoint someone — especially someone not present at the meeting — without community input and an interview. Still other residents said the board is charged with making decisions for the town and should be allowed to do so. S.J. Smith said Strickland was at the meeting, but had to leave.
“We need to know who we are getting on this board,” said resident Lila Monroe. “That’s why it’s a mess in here now.”
Brown, who was present, said he was interested in the position.
“If someone is wanting a public seat on a public board, they should be present and show an interest,” Brown said. “I grew up in the town of Garland. I don’t feel like I’ve devoted 100 percent, but I have been here. I feel like if someone is wanting to represent a public, each any every one of us, that person should be here to take that seat proudly.”
Still more residents spoke, sometimes heatedly, before Ralph Smith asked to speak. He said he served on the board for the residents of Garland and the business people of the town.
“Other people in the area, Clinton, Parkersburg or whatever, they’re not my first people I serve,” said Smith. “I serve the residents and the business people in the town of Garland. A motion was on the table, it was seconded, it was approved and I think that should be the end of the conversation.”
Murphy asked for more public comments.
Brenda Cromartie, who has helped lead the N.C. STEP initiative, said she does not live within the town limits of Garland, but was born and raised in the town and runs a salon in Garland.
“I feel I’m entitled to be in this place any time I choose to come,” Cromartie said. “What’s going on, to me, is ridiculous. We are not showing any togetherness and I feel that God is not pleased with this. And we need to get it together.”
Joyce Miles took umbrage to Smith’s comments.
“When we got ready to look for people to lead the STEP program we couldn’t find any of these dearly beloved people who are speaking now to lead that program,” Miles said. “Let’s stop this right now, and let us come together regardless of where you are. I’m just about up to here with trying to get things to go forward, and all we get is talked to like that. All that we ask is that you be reasonable, you be fair and you truly have the desires of the whole community in mind — not just a segment of the community.”
The Rev. Ronald Highsmith, who lived in Garland for many years and has been on the town’s N.C. STEP committee since it began, now lives in Raleigh but still pastors regularly in the community.
He said his email is inundated with matters related to Garland. He said the town seems to be “in an uproar.”
“From what I’m seeing and hearing, there is a lot going on that is not pleasing. I think everybody here can agree with that,” said Highsmith, who noted the lack of community involvement in STEP. “Where are the people? This is a town that needs to come together. They can make this a place people want to come. I’m not here to bash anybody. I’m not here to push anybody. I’m saying to the board, to the members, to whomever it may concern, it’s time for this town to come together.”
Dorothy Staton said the constant stories about Garland’s open meetings were an embarrassment. She urged more trust in the government officials and involvement by the public.
“These meetings that we’re having, and they’re getting in the newspaper, is a disgrace to our town. If we can’t come to this board and trust our commissioners and our mayor to support our town … if you want to know what’s going on, come to the meetings,” she said. “Personally, I am tired of trash being wrote about our town. The comments being made are all negative. We have nothing good to say about our meetings, our commissioners … the ones who do not care about our town don’t want anything to do with our town.”
Murphy, in opening the meeting, said it was time for the negativity and divisiveness to come to an end.
“I’m challenging all of us tonight to try to work together as a community, to try to work together as an elected board, to try to work together with our businesses so that we can move forward. We need to work together,” said Murphy. “None of us are perfect. The past is the past. We need to look forward to the future. The (spotlight) has been on Garland, it’s our choice whether it is to be positive or negative.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.