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Northampton nixes ‘conference’ policy

JACKSON – Northampton County Commissioners decided in a split vote not to impose a policy on attending conferences.

During their regular meeting Wednesday morning, the board defeated a motion by Commissioner Chester Deloatch to impose a policy which would have allowed the board chair or vice chair to attend state or national conferences at their discretion.

Vice Chairman James E. Hester joined Commissioners Virginia D. Spruill and Robert V. Carter in defeating the motion by a 3-2 vote. Commission Chair Fannie P. Greene voted with Deloatch in favor of the motion.

Northampton County Manager Wayne Jenkins presented the policy for the board’s consideration during the meeting, adding that it was the board’s decision whether or not to pursue the policy.

The policy said, “It is ‘standing policy’ that the sitting chair or vice chair, should the chair choose not to attend, of the Northampton County Board of Commissioners retains the discretion to attend state and national meetings wherein representation of Northampton County at such meetings is beneficial to the county.”

Carter asked if the policy was in place or had to be adopted and Jenkins said it was a new policy offered for consideration.

“I don’t think we need to put a policy in place for commissioners to attend a conference,” Carter said. “Commissioners should use diplomacy and tact. When you are in a situation where the county is under tough economic times and you have to raise taxes, you should use discretion as to whether or not to attend.”

Carter said when times were better and the county could receive a benefit, he was in favor of commissioners attending meetings, but not during tough economic times.

Deloatch asked Jenkins how much it cost to be members of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. Jenkins said the annual dues were roughly $2,400.

“I have withdrawn from all travel, but I think if we spend money to pay dues, maybe the chair and vice chair should attend the meetings,” Deloatch said.

Spruill then read a prepared statement into the record.

“The conference attendance policy in my opinion is not necessary,” she said. “As a practice, when the county has enjoyed an improved robust economy, the Board of Commissioners provided funds for commissioners to attend state and national conferences.

“By the same token, in the past, when the county experienced or anticipated a leaner economy, such as in the 2009-10 budget year, the board applied budgetary constraints for commissioners and county employees as well,” she added.

Spruill said all non-essential travel was eliminated and as far as she knew, the employees have lived up to that directive even when conferences could have been beneficial.

“Fellow board members, these budgetary and funding restrictions related to travel have been in place during prior years and have worked until the 2009-10 budget year,” she said. “We ought to understand attendance by a commissioner at state or national conference is not mandatory.

“Whether we are a county employee or a county commissioner, we are all employed by the same people, the taxpayers of this county,” she added. “We must be vigilant, sensible and above all, fair, in the dispensation of their monies. For us to do otherwise gives the appearance we have fallen prey to circumventing, manipulating and compromising the trust and integrity the taxpayers have placed in us.”

Spruill suggested the board continue to follow the policy in the past and allow commissioners to attend conferences when feasible and not to during leaner times.

Greene asked for a motion to dispense of the matter and Deloatch moved to adopt the policy allowing the chair to attend the meetings. No second was offered, but Greene called for a vote on the motion following the board’s procedure.

Deloatch and Greene voted in favor with the other three voting against.

After the vote, Hester said he didn’t like the implications of the policy.

“A standing policy makes it mandatory even if next year is worse economically than this year and that’s why I cast my vote,” Hester said.

“In my opinion, let’s do what we have done in the past,” Spruill said.

Greene said she didn’t see the harm in the chair attending a conference.

“My position is and always will be that regardless of how things are going, you can’t disconnect from state and national government,” she said.

Greene said sending the chairperson would cost only about $2,500 and would not be that expensive.

“I don’t see the problem here,” she said.

Spruill said the board could address the issue one conference at a time.

“It’s been settled, let’s move on,” Greene said.