Citizens criticize elected leaders

Published 5:28 pm Tuesday, August 23, 2022

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GATESVILLE – Several Gates County residents are not happy with their local government officials and used the public comment period of the Aug. 17 meeting of the county commissioners to criticize their elected leaders.

Wade Askew, a former county commissioner, led off what became nearly 60 minutes worth of complaints by saying he is “seeing a lot of things that just aren’t right.”

After lecturing the commissioners on what he felt was a mistake on the conceptual thinking behind the county’s Unity Monument erected earlier this year, Askew accused the board of “treating our Sheriff just as nasty as anybody I’ve ever seen treated. He’s trying to defend the citizens of this county and he can’t even get the equipment to operate with.

“You bought a piece of land,” Askew continued, referencing the county’s purchase earlier this year of 145 acres located within what once was the Merchants Commerce Center. “You had a public hearing. One hundred percent of the people were against the purchase of that piece of land, but you bought it anyway. That’s totally against of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Askew also scolded the commissioners for raising property taxes in the midst of a financial recession across the nation.

“You have fired [county] employees over nothing and then you lied about the reason you fired them,” Askew alleged. “You govern the citizens of this county and the employees of this county with intimidation. You hired the wrong [county] manager.”

Askew, saying he favored preserving the integrity of Gates County, then asked for the resignation of “you four in the middle” – later confirming he was referencing Commissioner Jack Owens, County Manager Tim Wilson (who was absent from the meeting), Board Chair Dr. Althea Riddick, and Vice-Chair Linda Hofler.

Joseph Allen, who said he has lived in the county for nearly 70 years, referenced budget cuts to the local school system that impacted the jobs of support staff.

He asked about how low income housing will bring in more money to help retain teachers; how much more will it cost the county to expand 9-1-1 coverage; and what added burden will be placed on the county’s taxpayers to get the public water and sewer system back to where it needs to be.

“What’s the need for an assistant county manager,” Allen asked as he referenced the county’s dwindling population.

“We spent $600,000 for the land purchase (referenced earlier by Askew)…what’s your plan to develop it,” he added. “A study needed to be done before we bought the land. The commissioners have done a poor job when it comes to planning.”

He also mentioned the recent property tax hike.

“This comes during a recession; it seems our management has no clue to what’s going on,” Allen noted. “I think we need to repeal that tax increase.”

Allen was critical of the way the board allowed the “public denigration of a county official. That was not very professional and should have been done behind closed doors. The leadership on this board should resign.”

Allen was perhaps referencing the May 18 meeting of the commissioners where Diane Hendrix, the county’s former director of Customer Service Department, came under fire for not devising a plan, as requested, to collect overdue water bills.

Emily Truman also grilled the commissioners.

“Quit destroying our county,” she pleaded. “Quit making decisions that cost the citizens; quit demeaning and degrading county employees; quit casting blame on those in the past; move forward by choosing better communication, better training, and better opportunities for the employees of this county; and quit trying to find a scapegoat behind you.”

She also chided the county manager for his decision to, “terminate a longtime and loved employee.”

“He [Wilson] likes to cite insubordination when dismissing employees. I ask this board: when will you come together and dismiss Mr. Wilson for his insubordination to you all,” Truman inquired. “If I recall correctly, he has been asked multiple times to answer questions that he has failed to answer in a timely manner.”

Another longtime county resident, Earl Rountree, called last week’s meeting as “one of the saddest I’ve been to in 50 years.”

He mentioned former county manager Natalie Rountree, asking the commissioners if they informed her of what she was doing wrong before firing her in October of 2020.

“It looked like it was all planned to me,” he stated.

Mr. Rountree also questioned the hiring of Wilson.

“I knew his background, others knew it as well and knew what type of person he was,” he stated.

Mr. Rountree chastised the board for the way they treated county sheriff Ray Campbell.

“The Sheriff is the highest ranking official in the county; it’s not Tim Wilson, it’s the sheriff,” he stressed, adding that Campbell’s request for much-needed vehicles for his department has been denied on several occasions.

He also expressed shock over the treatment of Hendrix.

“That was also a planned set up,” Rountree alleged. “It all should have handled much differently. Ya’ll sat there like bumps on a log.”

David Forsyth said he has worked in construction in foreign counties and interacted with government officials overseas.

“I’ve been cussed out by Italian union officials and I didn’t feel as insulted then as watching the way you treated one of your employees,” he stated. “I like to see people treated with respect.”

He said that public officials have a tough job to do, but some, “don’t make decisions based on the best welfare for those they serve. Take responsibility for your actions.”

John Kittrell advocated for the county to supplement the sheriff’s department with enough funding to purchase at least two new vehicles each year.

“Go ahead and project that now for next year, and the next year, and the next year,” he stressed. “If you don’t then you’re going to wind up in the situation you’re in now. This isn’t the first year this has happened.”

J.D. Harrell said Gates County has taken pride in, “making homegrown people with multiple skills who are able to take a whole lot of nothing and make a lot out of it.”

“I’ve owned and operated a plumbing business in seven counties and until Edgar Mitchell came into the [county] Inspections Office, Gates County was the most difficult county to work with over plumbing code and permits,” Harrell remarked. “Edgar was the most common sense and fair enforcement officer I dealt with. I also dealt with Diane Hendrix. She was friendly and helpful. Letting her go is a sad situation.”

He also expressed his displeasure over the recent increase in property taxes as well as purchasing the Merchants Commerce Center land that, in his opinion, “won’t hold the weight of what may be built there; you’ll have to spend a lot of money to build it up.”

Harrell was also critical with what he said was the board allowing the county manager to, “insulate himself behind layers of staff. Put him to work.”

A few days following the meeting, Riddick contacted the Gates County Index in reference to Hendrix. Riddick noted that the board, during their June meeting, voted 3-2 in favor of a plan devised by Wilson to reorganize several county departments.

That plan, Riddick noted, eliminated the Customer Service Department. Hendrix was supervisor of that department.

“Her last day was Aug. 19, but she resigned on Aug. 9,” Riddick said, adding that the one other employee in the Customer Service Department now reports to the county’s Finance Department.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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