Longtime Garland mayor Anthony Johnson resigned from his post abruptly Thursday night, reading a short statement before walking out of the Town Hall to solemn board members and a stunned audience.
Johnson made the announcement shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday, following a 30-minute closed session to discuss personnel. The board was set to receive an audit report as soon as they convened the open session, however with the auditor running a few minutes late, Johnson spoke up.
“I guess we should get this over with,” said Johnson, before going into a prepared statement. “Board of Commissioners, I submit my resignation effective immediately, as mayor, for personal business reasons. I will continue to offer my support to the town board and town of Garland as needed. Yours truly, Anthony L. Johnson.”
He put down the sheet of paper, got up from his seat and walked out of the room and building, on his way out saying “Thank you very much.” With some murmurs from the roughly dozen in attendance, Mayor Pro-Tem Mike Toler took the seat at the head of the table vacated moments earlier by Johnson.
“I’d never thought I’d see the day I’d see this happen,” said Toler. “He’s got a lot going on now personally and with his business. He didn’t feel like he had time to devote to this. He thought it would be in his best interests and the interests of the town to step down.”
At that point, commissioner Winifred Murphy made a motion that the stipend received by elected officials and the mayor of $100 per month be subject to tax, include income tax and FICA. The motion was seconded and approved. Still waiting on the auditor, Toler opened the floor to any public comment.
“I thank Anthony for his service to the town of Garland and what he’s accomplished,” said Sylvia Carter. “I appreciate him as a human being.”
“I second that,” said Stephen Green. “I didn’t think a lot of things were done as they should’ve been, but a lot of things probably were that I didn’t see. I appreciate him as a man.”
Toler said Johnson’s occupation as a farmer, and trying to juggle that with the duties of the town, are much different from a board member who can devote his or her time solely to the service of the town.
“It makes a difference when you have people on the board who are working, than when you have someone who might be retired,” said Toler. “They have more time to devote to it than a working commissioner does.”
Toler said Johnson would be leaving a void, having served the town for more than two decades. Between his time as commissioner and mayor, Johnson served Garland for 22 years, Toler noted.
“He’s going to be missed,” he said.
The mayor pro-tem noted recent support and urged it to continue. The board has always been there to listen to concerns, he said, but only in recent months has the meeting room seen capacity crowds.
“I hope when you have concerns, you will bring them to us,” said Toler. “I know one thing we all want is to do things for the betterment of Garland. We’ll get through this and we’ll move on, hopefully make this a better place to live.”
The board is expected to further discuss appointments for both the mayor’s post and a commissioner’s seat at its Feb. 14 meeting. The mayor will be chosen from the current board and whoever is selected as the next mayor must have a commissioner replacement to fulfill their unexpired term. That commissioner will be any member of the public and board members expressed their desire to get public input on who that person should be.
Speaking outside of the meeting, several residents said they were somewhat sad to see Johnson go, many knowing him personally. However, most were quick to add that the town needed someone who could be devoted, especially in a time that is seeing sweeping changes in the southern Sampson town.
In recent months, Garland has beefed up its ethics and public records policies, established a new website and developed committees, all in an effort to engage and involve the public. An initiative is currently ongoing to apply for a N.C. Small Town Economic Prosperity grant, which has necessitated several community assessments and public input sessions, which have been widely attended. The board meetings have also seen unprecedented regular crowds.
“It was a weak move,” said Green of Johnson’s resignation. “I don’t think it was called for at this time. There’s a change coming, for the last two or three months, with wanting to get a grant. We weren’t against him. We were trying to support him. Anthony is a good man. I wanted him to stay and we could do this together.”
“He’s a good man,” said Carter. “He just didn’t devote the time.”
Former commissioner S.J. Smith, one of two longtime commissioners who lost their seat in this past November’s election, was not present for the announcement but came to Town Hall later Thursday evening. He and others spoke about the recent development, during which Smith shared his support for Johnson and his years of hard work and devotion. He said Johnson was one of the most committed mayors he worked with in his 36 years.
“No other mayor comes down here at 2 a.m. and gets in a ditch to dig out water lines,” Smith said. “He did.”
The town received an audit report from Wade Greene, CPA with S. Preston Douglas & Associates, LLP of Whiteville, who raised concerns with some of the town’s accounting and the trouble reconciling Garland’s financial records.
Following the audit report and a second closed session, a finance committee was formed to oversee the town’s finances and current finance officer and town clerk Teresa Vaught was placed on indefinite probation. Vaught will continue to work but will be monitored as a stipulation of the probation.
During his audit report, Greene said money was “skimmed” from the General Fund in the last fiscal year 2010-11, as well as the year before that, to help pay expenditures in the Water and Sewer Fund. “The General Fund has been used to subsidize the Water Fund,” said Greene. “You were borrowing money to meet ends. You’re not supposed to borrow money.”
He said the condition of the Water and Sewer fund was not great, but the General Fund was worse.
“You may break even in Water and Sewer,” said Greene, “but any repairs and you’ll be in the hole. You’d be probably be in trouble. You have no reserve.”
Toler said the town would likely have to look at rate hikes.
“Basically, to get that Water and Sewer Fund back up, we’re going to have to raise rates,” he remarked. “That’s going to be a sore subject with our people, but something’s got to be done.”
“The thing is these things probably should’ve taken place years back,” said commissioner Ralph Smith.
Greene said the General Fund was in poor shape.
“The Water and Sewer Fund will probably hold its own until year end,” said Greene. “The General Fund is the one that is losing money.”
To make the money up, it could mean raising sales tax, garbage rates or the current 72 cent property tax rate. Murphy said cost-cutting measures should be looked at first.
“I think we need to look at other towns our size before we raise rates,” said Murphy, “and look at anything we can cut back on. We certainly don’t want to (raise rates) and I think we need to look at everything.”
“We’re going to have to do something,” Smith added.
Murphy asked Greene how much the audit cost the town, and he replied it was in excess of $16,000. She asked whether that cost could have been avoided.
“Yes, have the books in better shape,” he said. “If the books has been in better shape or reconciled, that could have been cut in half.”
Smith noted past audits in the town of Garland have cost between $6,000 and $7,000. Murphy said Roseboro’s audit this past year cost $6,000.
Garland reportedly hasn’t had sought an audit in a number of years.
Smith and Murphy asked Greene to inform them of what he needed, what can be improved prior to this year’s budget and offer any recommendations. Greene said better bookkeeping on Garland’s end would help a great deal, and comprehensive year-end reports would go a long way.
Murphy asked whether the town’s records met general accepted accounting principles, the standard guidelines for financial accounting.
“I’d say they were kept so-so,” said Greene. “A lot of things were not reconcilable.”
At Murphy’s request, the board again entered into closed session to discuss personnel, with Greene joining them for the first half of the session. After about an hour behind closed doors, the board came into open session and several pieces of action were taken, all seconded and approved unanimously.
Commissioner Denise Toler made a motion to develop a finance committee for the town, to consist of Smith and Murphy; Commissioner Coleman Johnson made a motion for the committee to change the location of the town’s banking facility from Clinton to Garland; and, lastly, Smith made a motion to place Vaught on probation “until we get these matters straightened out.”
No timeline was set for the length of probation, with the board to assess the situation further at its Feb. 14 meeting.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email email@example.com.