Mayor under fire

Published 10:22 am Thursday, August 4, 2016

POWELLSVILLE – Amidst allegations of possible financial improprieties, the Powellsville Town Commissioners have taken the unprecedented step of requesting the resignation of long-time town mayor Thomas Asbell.

Bertie County Sheriff John Holley said his office received an inquiry regarding the possible misappropriation of town funds, and that subsequently on July 6 he requested the assistance of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.

According to the SBI, the allegations mentioned Asbell, based on his role and scope as the Mayor of Powellsville.

In addition to Mayor, Asbell was also the town’s Finance Officer, Water Manager, and Maintenance Manager.

On Monday, the SBI executed a search warrant at Powellsville Town Hall and seized – among other things – records that are currently being reviewed and inventoried.

Thomas Asbell

Thomas Asbell

“We should be returning the search warrant soon, as we have no intention to have it sealed,” said SBI Public Information Officer Shannon O’Toole from Raleigh. This case is being worked jointly with the (Bertie County) Sheriff’s office and we anticipate meeting with the District Attorney once we get further along in the investigation.”

Tuesday at their regular monthly meeting, Powellsville Town Commissioners James Peele, Carlyle Hoggard, and J.T. Watford unanimously requested Asbell’s resignation.

“In light of the SBI’s investigation, we cannot comment on any specifications, but we do have some items we do wish to bring up,” said Hoggard.

At that time, Hoggard read a list of resolutions that were turned into a motion:

– Asbell was prohibited from entering the Town Hall building during the duration of the investigation, unless escorted by a law enforcement officer.

– Asbell’s salaries as Water Manager and Maintenance Manager were immediately terminated.

– A town cell phone used by the Mayor was to be turned into the Commissioners immediately and the service terminated.

– Property in the town maintenance yard (tractors, trailers, plows, discs, an old Plymouth automobile, and any other property owned by Asbell, including property stored in other buildings owned by the town) would be relocated by him to a location other than town property within the next seven days; and no town employees could assist in the removal of that property during their normal working hours.

– All locks to the office and conference room would be changed and the mayor must immediately surrender all keys belonging to the town (including the pump station, cash drawer, maintenance yard, sewer pump station, Post Office box, and Community Building).

– Though Asbell did not attend the meeting, he was asked to leave the premises after turning in the items previously mentioned.

Prior to a vote on the resolutions, the Board voted to appoint Peele as mayor pro tem to execute the duties of mayor until the Nov. 2016 election. Peele was already serving in that capacity without the executive responsibilities.

Town attorney Ernie Carter answered a question of whether Peele could serve in two capacities: Commissioner and mayor pro tem.

“He is allowed to do so under the statutes of Chapter 106,” Carter noted.

Hoggard then accepted the responsibilities of Finance Officer for the town.

The Commissioners then voted and unanimously passed a motion to accept their resolutions.

Hoggard’s first act as town Finance Officer was to amend the hours of operation.

“New office hours will be from Wednesday at 9 a.m.-to- 1 p.m. and Fridays from 1 p.m.-to-5 p.m.,” Hoggard said. “They will be in effect until further notice.”

One resident called Peele the ‘new’ mayor, but was corrected by Carter.

“At this point the mayor that is elected is still the mayor,” Carter informed the assembly. “Commissioner Peele is serving as mayor pro tem because the mayor is not present; but he has not resigned from that position and is still the elected mayor and until then he can still serve in that capacity although with the restrictions of the council as they have put in place.”

Hoggard said a new Town Clerk would be hired in the near future, but he would serve a dual capacity along with Finance Officer’s duties. He pledged to work with residents on their water/sewer payments despite the now-limited office hours.

The Commissioners also said there would be another budget amendment, though they would not give a date when it might take effect.

“We have found a lot of areas of wasteful spending that we can cut,” Hoggard claimed. “We will do our best to keep our town in a sense of fiscal discipline; we’ve got to re-vamp things and our goal is to get our town back on solid financial footing.”

One final resolution the Commissioners did not put in their motion was to re-open bids (upset bids) for the town’s golf cart, stored at the maintenance yard. New bids must be minimum ten percent higher than the highest sealed bid which was opened ($250). Only two sealed bids were submitted.

Hoggard requested the Board inform the Mayor in writing of the request for his resignation since Asbell had not been informed of the action as of Tuesday morning.

Long-time Powellsville resident E. Rawls “Buck” Carter stood before the assembly and called the proceedings one of the saddest days in the history of the town.

“In defense of the Mayor, he’s done a lot of good things like the water improvements,” Carter said. “I’m sorry it had to come down to this that he got us into this situation.”

Peele said he echoed some of Carter’s sentiments.

“I share your sentiments,” Peele intoned. “I’d rather be almost anywhere than to be sitting here this morning. I gained a lot, I learned a lot, but at the same time we want you to get as much out of the town as the town can afford, and we endeavor as Commissioners to do that. We will be no less vigilant about the town’s activities, or the growth of the town; allow us to get through this procedure, and I think things will turn around for the better.”

During another set of public comments, some citizens then thanked the Board for their actions.

“I want to thank you for taking the time to explain things to us,” said resident Earnest Howard, “because we didn’t want to leave here with things on our minds. You’ve explained it, and we appreciate it.”

“I’m not a (Town of) Powellsville resident,” said local farmer Kent Williams, “but I’m very concerned with what goes on in the town and being born and raised here I commend these three gentlemen for the decision they’ve made. But now you need a mayor who’ll do the town right and work for you; start thinking about it.”

For some of the residents who were late arrivals, the Board reviewed its actions.

Hoggard said the Local Government Commission assisted the Board in the resolutions that were voted upon; and were done as a result of the ongoing investigation.

“While we would like to take credit for what you see done here, we’re not responsible,” explained Peele. “We are only delivering.”

Hoggard said the Board would possibly meet before their regularly-scheduled first Tuesday in September meeting to adopt more budget amendments, but that residents would be kept informed if they do so.