It’s easy to have a fairytale understanding of how government works. We’d like to think that we live in a community of articulate, involved citizens and honest government officials who can have robust debate but ultimately make decisions that are in the best interest of the people.
While that idea has some nobility to it, it’s also, frankly, naive.
We will soon have the opportunity to choose town board members who will shape policies and culture in our community, and it’s important that we get it right. To do that, sometimes we need to pull the curtain back and take a peek at what’s happening that our government may not want us to see.
The Town of Mooresville has given us plenty to examine.
Over the past year, our town board has clashed over several controversial matters, including a recent one that required Mayor Miles Atkins — who decided not to seek re-election this year — to break several ties, which no mayor wants to do. Town Clerk Genevieve Glaser recently submitted her resignation, and so did Planning Director Danny Wilson. Town Manager Randy Hemann has also resigned, taking a job as city manager of Oak Ridge, TN.
It was from there that an Oak Ridge city council member, Charlie Hensley, recently took to the Scoop’s Facebook page to defend Hemann’s “morals.” In doing so, he exposed that Hemann had reported a Mooresville town board member “for unethical activities involving a contractor.”
While he later deleted his comment, there was no putting the genie back in the bottle.
It’s actually unclear whether it was Hemann or Atkins who recently filed the ethics complaint against Commissioner Lisa Qualls that launched an ongoing SBI investigation in town — we’ll get to that in a minute. But what’s not as unclear is that something has run afoul on Mooresville’s town board and among its senior leadership.
In just the past few months, including calling in the SBI to determine if Qualls was bribed for swaying votes for a project, the town board:
- Received a notice that a lawsuit is pending from the Transco Road landowners against three commissioners who recently voted against a high-density residential development near Lowe’s Home Improvement’s corporate headquarters off I-77/Exit 31. This is the same issue on which the board was deadlocked earlier this year and Atkins broke several ties in favor of the development. Lawyers for the property owners have requested that the town hold and preserve all communications to and from the three commissioners who voted against the project — Qualls, Eddie Dingler and Gary West — and two private citizens/former town commissioners, Chris Carney and David Coble, one of whom is running for mayor of Mooresville this November.
- Considered a 4-year contract extension for Hemann that Commissioner Bobby Compton — who’s also running for mayor — seems to have introduced in a recent meeting of the town board that was closed to the public. The contract would have handed Hemann a sweetheart deal of almost $1 million of taxpayer money if, for instance, a new town board is seated after the election in November and it voted to fire the town manager without a cause specifically listed in his contract.
Sweetheart deal for lame-duck manager
The proposed contract would have extended Hemann’s employment and guaranteed him four years of his $223,664 salary ($894,656) if the town fired him within those four years without contractual cause. Each month that Hemann worked without being fired would have deducted a month of his salary from the total contract amount.
The benefit of such a contract to Hemann is evident. But how exactly would it benefit the taxpayers who pay Hemann’s salary?
In responding to the Scoop last week, Compton didn’t offer a clear answer to that question. And he said he couldn’t remember details about the contract because he said it was drawn up “some months ago” — sometime after Hemann’s evaluation in May or June. But actually, the contract was presented to the board last month, on Aug. 7.
Of the estimated $900,000 payout, Compton said, “Those are your words, not mine. I’m not sure if the contract said that. It may not have said that.” He said he couldn’t confirm details of the contract because he didn’t have a copy of it with him. But it seems he was the only elected official who ever had a copy of it or even any knowledge of it before it was presented to the board.
Compton and Qualls are the only two members of the town board’s “personnel committee,” which leads the board in its annual employment reviews of the town manager, town clerk and town attorney. In responding to Scoop questions last week, Qualls said, “There was no committee discussion regarding any change in (the) manager contract.”
Compton introduced the contract to the board on a night when Qualls was absent from the meeting because she had commitments to her family out of state. Had a majority of the board been in favor of the contract, commissioners could have emerged from closed session and voted that very night to award the $900,000 contract extension to Hemann, who was actively and publicly seeking work elsewhere.
One of the more puzzling parts of this story is that a four-year contract extension was out of left field and completely unnecessary. Hemann’s contract with the town has always been an annual, “rolling” contract — Hemann’s preference, according to Compton — and the town board has simply agreed to extend it each year.
It seems the only benefit of the contract would have been to the town manager, in giving him four times the amount of money he would have otherwise received in the event he was fired down the road.
A majority of the board didn’t bite on the 4-year contract, so a 2-year extension was drawn up instead. Before the board had time to consider that contract, Hemann had accepted the city manager job in Oak Ridge, TN, making the contract extension moot.
While Hemann was interviewing for the city manager position in Tennessee, he told the Oak Ridge city council — in a public, live-streaming video — that his morals don’t align with “his” town board in Mooresville. Only later would a Tennessee council member expound on that in a comment on the Scoop’s Facebook page in which he said that Hemann had filed an ethics complaint against a commissioner.
That commissioner is Lisa Qualls.
Mayor Atkins has apparently also taken credit for filing the ethics complaint against Qualls. Regardless of who filed it, the town board chose to ask the SBI to investigate the allegation that a local land developer — who is also a longtime personal and professional acquaintance of Qualls’ — gave the commissioner a pair of tickets to a Las Vegas rodeo in exchange for her vote on a project that the developer had before the town.
Qualls did vote in favor of the project, but so did all the other board members; it passed unanimously. Others have indicated that Qualls didn’t so much as ask how they planned to vote on the project, so if she took the tickets as a bribe to sway the board, she didn’t do a very good job of it.
Neither Qualls nor District Attorney Sarah Kirkman chose to comment on the matter. “Whether an investigation is ongoing or not is not public record and not something that I could comment on,” Kirkman said.
One critical job of a mayor is, when necessary, to negotiate among board members to reach compromises and consensus on issues. But by this spring, it was clear that wasn’t happening in Mooresville.
Commissioners earlier this year deadlocked three times over a high-density mixed-use development proposal by LIV Development on Transco Road at I-77/Exit 31. The development would have added 579 apartments and an estimated 3,500 trips each weekday on Mooresville roads, all before bids were even in for the long-anticipated East-West Connector.
The East-West Connector would connect Langtree Road to N.C. 115. The connector road is necessary infrastructure in the area that at the time was zoned “Employment Center” and is home to Lowe’s Home Improvement corporate headquarters and Corvid Technologies, which has clients ranging from the U.S. military to NASCAR.
Commissioners Qualls, Dingler and West all voted against LIV’s residential project, citing the lack of infrastructure there — including the East-West Connector and a needed Fire Station No. 7 to service the area — and the town’s long-standing plan to keep that particular area zoned for jobs, not apartments.
But Commissioner Compton, instead, made a motion to approve the project and change the zoning of the property to Neighborhood Residential to make way for the high-density development. Commissioners Thurman Houston and Tommy Deweese voted with Compton, and Mayor Atkins broke the tie in favor.
In voting against the project, Dingler predicted that the cost of the East-West Connector would be exponentially higher than the town originally anticipated. And he was right. Shortly after the board approved the development, bids were in and showed that the taxpayer’s burden for the connector road would be millions more than originally anticipated.
It didn’t take long for the Transco Road landowners to fire back against the commissioners who voted against the LIV development. In the town board’s agenda briefing on April 28, Commissioner West mentioned a lawsuit that he said was targeting him, Dingler and Qualls for their votes against the residential project.
That lawsuit demanded that the town hold and preserve any and all communications sent or received by Qualls, Dingler, West and two private citizens and former town commissioners, David Coble and now-mayor-hopeful (and former state senator) Chris Carney.
During the heat of board conflict, LIV pulled its request for utility extensions to the Transco Road property. It was later added to the town board’s September meeting, at which point the board unanimously voted against extending utilities because the town has no concrete plan for a fire station in the area, and Mooresville’s fire chief stated that the development would be outside the fire department’s current response time. Without utilities, the board’s approval of the project’s zoning became irrelevant, which virtually killed the project.
Corporate partner fallout
Since sinking roots in Mooresville 20 years ago, Lowe’s Home Improvement has been known for its philanthropic outreach in the Mooresville community. While it had offered to donate seven acres of its land off Langtree Road for the town to build Fire Station No. 7, it reversed course after finding out — by reading it in the newspaper — that the town had changed the corridor’s long-standing zoning and approved 579 apartments on 100 acres of land across the street from its corporate headquarters.
It makes sense why that might upset Lowe’s. All traffic out of Transco Road — which would include the projected 3,500 extra trips a day generated by 579 apartments — can only take a right out of Transco Road and onto Langtree. But a traffic study has suggested that approximately 80 percent of those apartment dwellers would need to access I-77, which would require taking a left out of Transco which is impossible because of a grassy median.
Without the East-West Connector built, the only option would be for motorists moving from Transco to Langtree to make a right then either make an illegal U-turn on Langtree or a U-Turn on Lowe’s corporate campus.
A Lowe’s employee with knowledge of the situation said Lowe’s has talked extensively with the Town of Mooresville about its specific needs in that area, including a fire station. But needing a fire station to service a sprawling residential development was never disclosed as part of those plans.
Instead of acknowledging that perhaps the town is at fault for Lowe’s pulling its land for the fire station because the town, at the least, violated the spirit of a corporate partnership by changing zoning that would alter the entire corridor on which Lowe’s is situated, Commissioner Compton in this month’s town board meeting instead blamed “other parties that don’t want this to happen.”
“They went to Lowe’s and said, ‘That fire station don’t need to go there,’ so it was taken away, so that hurts my decision,” Compton said to LIV developers in last week’s board meeting. “The ones that had that fire station … that land … pulled from us got their way this time. Sorry about that; it’s not y’all’s fault. They are not here tonight in the audience I don’t think, but something else is behind that that hurt our fire station chances.”
My final thoughts
We’d like to think that our local politics are better than this. But the fact is: sometimes they are, and sometimes they’re not. The best way for us to increase the odds, though, that we have more good government and less bad government is to make our voices heard at the polls.
We’re holding a candidate forum this Thursday from 6-9 p.m. in the Joe V. Knox Auditorium at the Charles Mack Citizen Center. It’s free, and you’re invited, and we’d love to see you there! The majority of candidates (if not ALL) have RSVP’d, and we’re excited to hear from each and every one of them!
Six candidates in Mooresville’s at-large race forced a primary for Oct. 10. The top two vote-getters in the primary will advance to the Nov. 7 race and be on the ballot along with candidates for Ward 2 — Thurman Houston and challenger Will Aven — and the mayoral candidates, Bobby Compton and Chris Carney.