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2023 December Town Board Meeting
Two new Commissioners & legal questions about liaison position
December 8, 2023

A
change in the Board of Commissioners, a liaison position that might not be, and possible evening meetings.

Around twenty residents were in attendance for the December meeting. town hall sign Mayor Sally Belangia along with Commissioners David White, Charlie Overcash, Allen Price, Sandy Winfrey, and Frank Roe were seated to conclude business for the previous Board of Commissioners. Commissioners-elect Breena Litzenberger and Bonnie Crosser were present to be sworn-in.

Staff present included Town Manager Diane Miller, Deputy Finance Officer Tammy Cox, Public Works Director Andrew Cox, and Officer Bill Wichrowski.

TownDock.net records all meetings, and writes the report from that recording. All referenced emails are at the end of the article.

Old Business Concluded
Two items were on the agenda for the previous board to conclude: a withdrawn special use permit request and a Board response to the Local Government Commission. The Board also approved the release of the minutes from several closed session meetings regarding the purchase of land adjacent to the Water Tower.

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Mayor Sally Belangia thanks Commissioner Sandy Winfrey for his service.

A Special Use Permit for an artist’s studio was withdrawn at the request of the applicant. Initially, applicant Michelle Brooks believed she needed a permit for her studio in a residential area until it was determined at the November Planning Board meeting that her studio is for a hobby, not a business.

Commissioners signed a mandated response to the Local Government Commission explaining the measures put in place by the Town to address its appearance on the Unit Assistance List (UAL).

Those measures included finding a consistent auditor for the town, working with the auditor to address software issues, increasing water and connection fees over two years to improve operating income, and securing $5.5 million in State funds to update water distribution system.

Commissioner Changes
Commissioners Sandy Winfrey and David White stepped down, having not run for re-election. Both have served multiple terms.

Mayor Sally Belangia thanked both for their service, presenting them with commemorative plaques. White and Winfrey said their goodbyes, and left the meeting.

Judge Paul Delamar swore in the new Board: returning members Mayor Sally Belangia, Commissioners Charlie Overcash, Allen Price, and Frank Roe, followed by newly elected Commissioners Breena Litzenberger and Bonnie Crosser.

The newly seated Board unanimously chose Allen Price as the Mayor Pro Tempore – to assume the duties of Mayor in meetings when Mayor Belangia is absent.

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Commissioner David White with his commemorative plaque and Mayor Belangia.
Liaison Legitimacy Raises Questions
Commissioners chose the Board liaisons. Assignments were discussed at a public pre-organizational meeting on November 20, but not finalized until the December meeting.

What is a liaison?
Commissioners are appointed as liaisons to the Town’s auxiliary boards. It keeps Commissioners from having to attend every meeting of every board. In the words of Town Attorney Scott Davis, “the ‘liaison’ is someone who goes to an outside meeting and reports back to the Board. The liaison doesn’t actually do anything that requires any legal authority.”

There are liaisons to Oriental’s auxiliary boards, as well to outside groups like the Eastern Carolina Council of Government.

According to statute, and to ensure a system of financial checks and balances, Commissioners also appoint Board members to sign checks (along with the Town Manager, so there are two signatures for each check), and to open and review incoming bank statements.

Reviving an old, potentially unlawful, liaison position
At the recent December meeting, Commissioner Frank Roe made a motion to revive a defunct position from 2011 – a financial liaison – and appoint Bonnie Crosser. Commissioner Crosser has a background as a Certified Public Accountant.

The position was brought up at the pre-organizational meeting by Crosser, saying the need stemmed from a Unit Assistance List (UAL) training course attended by all Commissioners and some of the Town staff. Citing the course training, Crosser said, “I highly recommend that we put in place the financial [liaison], especially given the water plant.”

Crosser was referring to the $5.5 million in State funds granted for the Water Plant. (The Water Board has been revived with the express goal of administering that money, and Commissioner Crosser, along with Commissioner Allen Price, were named liaisons for that board.)

The financial liaison is a holdover from Oriental’s previous form of municipal government, where Commissioners operated as Department Heads, rather than board go-betweens. In 1997, Oriental’s government changed from a mayor-council form (where the mayor may be the managing authority and the council / commissioners oversee and can delegate to staff through departments) to a manager-council form (where the mayor and council delegate to the manager, and the manager delegates to staff and departments).

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Judge Paul Delamar swears in Mayor Sally Belangia. Her niece, Holly Dunn stands with her.

Legal complications?
Town Manager Miller said the financial liaison, while it did exist previously, may not have been legal, and the Town’s attorney would have to be consulted on the new position.

An email from Town Attorney Scott Davis, sent after the Nov 20 meeting, explained:

When we think about giving a liaison any authority, we can find ourselves on thin ice. In many cases, a governing board has no legal authority to delegate its duty to an individual. In other cases, public employees have specific authorities established by statute that cannot be interfered with.

All of the foregoing is to say that when it comes to creating a “finance liaison,” the answer will depend entirely on what the governing board is imaging for this liaison. Rather than spend time and money guessing at what the Board of Commissioners may or may not want to do, let’s first find out what the Board would like to do. And if the Board is interested in creating a ‘finance liaison,’ I need the Board to define for me exactly what they’d like a finance liaison to do.

Crosser continued pushing for the position without giving specifics as to the duties, saying the current form of municipal government “doesn’t preclude it.”

However, the attorney says it is precluded:

North Carolina statutes that create and regulate local governments are permissive rather than preclusive, meaning that a local government has NO authority to act unless a statute permits that authority. For example, there is no statute that precludes a local government from operating a hospital. However, there is no specific authority that allows local governments to operate a hospital, therefore it can’t.

Crosser did not submit a list of the duties for the financial liaison position to the attorney or other Commissioners before December’s meeting.

An appeal for caution
“I think it would be wise, just as Commissioner Roe has counseled many times in the past, that we need to understand something completely before we vote on it,” said Commissioner Charlie Overcash. He advised tabling the motion to the next meeting, so the legal details could be addressed.

Crosser then moved to vote instead. Roe seconded.

Overcash read out statements from the town attorney and the North Carolina League of Municipalities advising against the position, again asking to table it pending the attorney’s input.

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Sigrid Overcash holds a Bible while Commissioner Charlie Overcash takes his oath.

Proposed duties of the financial liaison
Commissioner Litzenberger asked for the details of the position.

Crosser provided. “A financial liaison works with the town of Oriental accounting staff and town manager to establish structural review of the financial condition of the general fund and the enterprise fund.”

Additionally, the position would review all financial documents including balance sheets, bank and credit card statements, bank reconciliations, accounts payable & receivable, check registers, subsidiary ledgers, and so on for the general fund and the enterprise fund. The liaison would also be able to question the staff regarding the above items.

Crosser continued saying, “What the UAL [Unit Assistance List] wants is an independent review of our key financial metrics within the period. They don’t want us to wait until the end of the audit.” Crosser seems to say the UAL advises a regular auditing schedule – from an independent source.

Is this a description of a liaison? Not as the Town Attorney defines it: “someone who goes to an outside meeting and reports back to the Board. The liaison doesn’t actually do anything that requires any legal authority.”

The duties seem to fall in the scope of an auditor, which Oriental has. Gregory Redman is an independent auditor, hired through the State Treasurer’s office. He presented the yearly audit at the November meeting. An elected Commissioner acting as auditor for their own government – paid or otherwise – is not independent.

The other legal conflict
Oriental’s government is Council – Manager. That means all administrative and financial authority statutorily belongs to the Town Manager, who acts as the Chief Financial Officer. Their duties are outlined in NC §159-25.

The statute also says, “Regardless of the entity performing such duties, the authority, powers, and duties of the finance officer shall not be superseded, and the responsibility for accurate and timely fulfillment of duties lies solely with the finance officer.”

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Allen Price was sworn in as Commissioner and Mayor Pro Tempore. His wife Leigh Price stands with him.

Put to the Vote
Commissioner Litzenberger asked Commissioner Crosser “would you be willing to wait to give that [definition of duties] to the lawyer to make sure it’s legal?”

Crosser replied, “It is cited out of the State Treasurer. So I question legal, and I would like to move for a vote.”

The vote passed, 4-1, with Litzenberger against.

The list provided by Commissioner Crosser needs to go to the attorney next for legal review.

At both the November pre-organizational and the December meetings, Manager Miller, and Commissioners Overcash and Litzenberger said that Commissioners can request and receive access to any document at any time. There is nothing barring Commissioner Crosser from accessing any financial document she desires.

Other Commissioner Assignments
Auxiliary Board Assignments:
Liaison to the Tree Board: Allen Price
Liaison to the Parks & Recreation Board: Allen Price, Bonnie Crosser
Liaison to the Tourism Board: Frank Roe
Liaison to the Harbor Waterfronts Board: Charlie Overcash, Breena Litzenberger

Operational Assignments
Liaison to the Eastern Carolina Council of Government: Allen Price
Liaison to Regional Planning Board: Town Manager Diane Miller
HR Liaison to the Town Manager: Charlie Overcash
Check Signing: Sally Belangia, Charlie Overcash

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Frank Roe, with Jennifer Roe, is sworn in.
Agenda Items Postponed
Commissioner Roe moved to have several agenda items moved to the February 6 Town Board Meeting. (The board will meet for a workshop January 25, instead of the regular board meeting which falls on Jan 2.)

The Process for Special Use Permits (SUP).
The Board has discussed changing this process several times, as Oriental has the most permissive form of SUP in the state. Residents have to show why a permit should not be issued, rather than have an applicant show proof why it should be issued.

ADA Transition Plan
The State requires and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Transition Plan to make public spaces accessible to everyone. The plan needs to be authorized by the Board, with the possibility of a timeline to implement the changes.

CAMA Rule Change Discussion
Coastal Area Management is proposing a rule change that could potentially conflict and creep into local authority. It could also shift the burden of enforcement onto the municipalities, and with it a financial burden that smaller municipalities would struggle to bear.

Rezoning Request for 807 Broad Street
The property where the Oriental Deli and the Post Office sit has been purchased by the owner of Chubby’s on Highway 55. They are putting in a fine-dining restaurant, and have poured a concrete slab in the back to allow for eating outside.

The front part of the lot is zoned for commercial use. The back part of the lot is zoned residential and extends to Midyette St. The owners are looking to rezone the residential lot to a mixed-use commercial.

When rezoning of the lot was attempted in the past, Midyette Street residents protested against the move, as it might encourage commercial traffic along the road. Midyette is also one of the few roads in town where children play along the street.

Though current owners have said they have no intention of putting road access from Midyette Street, future owners would have that option. Currently, the back lot has an easement running through the center of the property, with a Duke electrical box nearby. The residential lot did have a home on it at one time.

Special Use Permit for a Short Term Rental
The owners of 304 Main Street have requested a Special Use Permit for a Short Term Rental at their home.

SUPs transfer with the property, so if the owners move, the property can continue to be used as a short term rental under the new owners.

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Breena Litzenberger is sworn in. Her husband filmed from the audience.
Moving Meeting Times
At the pre-organizational meeting, Commissioners discussed moving the Town Board meeting back to the evenings. Meetings were at 7p before, but Commissioners decided 6p might work better as some meetings tend to run late. They agreed to ask the community about it and possibly do a 6 month trial.

Between that pre-organizational meeting and the December Town Board meeting, Commissioner Litzenberger posted a poll online asking for input.

Vicki Rasmussen spoke out about moving the meeting times. She noted that the times had been moved to mornings for “the convenience of a commissioner” before, and questioned whether it was being done again. She also asked if the town would have to pay overtime to staff for these meetings.

Litzenberger explained the meeting time discussion came about because “it was brought up a number of times with residents to move the meetings, for work purposes, for those outside of the 9 to 5 jobs.” She said she did the informal poll to make sure that she “wasn’t just talking to my friends.”

Of her poll, Litzenberger said, 67% wanted to move it until 6p, 12% wanted to keep it at 8a, 2% wanted a 7p meeting, and 14% didn’t care either way.

Litzenberger also addressed the overtime question. “At the pre-organizational meeting, [Deputy Finance Director] Tammy Cox and Manager Miller let us know that it’s not any overtime because the people that are attending are on salary.”

Commissioner Roe asked that attendance numbers be kept “to see how many humans show up.” He said it was originally changed to get more residents to the meetings.

The topic was tabled until the March board meeting to allow the performers using Town Hall Tuesday evenings to conclude their rehearsals.

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Bonnie Crosser, with husband Richard Lambert, is sworn in.
January Workshop Topics
Commissioners have a workshop January 25. These are public meetings outside the regular monthly meetings. Commissioners suggest topics and projects they want to talk about.

Commissioner Charlie Overcash suggested thinking of ways to make the police and manager reports more user friendly.

Manager’s Report
• Dolphin Point residents request a street light for Styron Drive. There are no other street lights in the area. Manager Miller explained that the town is locked in to a 10 year maintenance contract with Duke for the light, paid on a monthly basis for the light, pole, and fixture every month. Also, with the switch to LED lights, some street lights have been too bright, resulting in complaints from residents – and town has little to no control over this. Miller said she is for installing the light, but wanted Commissioners to have all the information. Commissioners agreed to have the light installed.
• The Whittaker Creek Channel Dredge has been pushed back. The plan is to move the channel from its current path over dense rock and into the natural channel a few degrees away. This means dredging will not occur until the next season.
• The bid for the Pierce Creek Dredging project is going out this month.
Notice of Violation given to Town for Water Quality. Town Manager Miller explained that this was not a contamination issue, but rather a lab accident. “We got a notice of violation because our water sample bottles broke in the process of testing. They can’t be sent in plastic bottles because it’s likely that they leach chemicals from the plastic. So they have to go in glass. And because that sample could not be processed, we are in violation for not meeting the deadline to have them a good sample.” The water is tested monthly at a third party lab for any contaminants or issues. The Town is required to notify residents of any findings.

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The new Oriental Board of Commissioners.
Auxiliary Board Reports
Commissioner Frank Roe requested the Planning Board look at tracking short term rentals in Oriental.

Planning Board Chair Allison DeWeese responded, discussing the steps the Planning Board had taken so far, including checking with marketing companies that track short term rentals in the area. “With one of the software companies I spoke with, we were doing a quick test, and it looked like we had 92 – or 98, I don’t remember exactly – active short term rentals on AirBnB in the last year.” That number was for locations marked as Oriental, and likely included rentals outside town limits.

She went on to explain that AirBnB sends a check to the town each month for occupancy taxes collected. However, there is no accompanying information identifying the address, the amount paid by each rental, or if there were no active rentals for a property each month.

By law, short term rentals must fill out a form monthly indicating how many nights they were rented out – even if it is zero – and pay an occupancy tax on those rentals. That money funds the Tourism and Parks & Recreation Boards.

DeWeese said she is looking into other methods of gaining the information that are less costly, including simple custom software options.

Harbor Waterfronts Chair Jim Blackerby reported his board had met with the North Carolina Coastal Federation in an effort look at cost-sharing options for restoring some of Oriental’s eroding shorelines.

Tourism Board Chair Marsha Paplham said her board was working with Mayor Sally Belangia on the Town’s 125th Birthday party, but that otherwise they would not hold another meeting until the new year.

Commissioners broke for a closed session to discuss a land acquisition. When they returned, the meeting was adjourned.

Dates to Know
The next Town Board Meeting will be Tuesday, February 6, 2024 at 8a. There is a scheduled workshop, open to the public, January 25, 2024 at 8a.

Related Information
Email from Scott Davis About Permissive State Laws, Nov 27, 2023
Email from Scott Davis About Liaisons in Municipal Government, Nov 30, 2023
December Agenda – Old Business
November Meeting Minutes – Old Business
FIPR Letter – Old Business
Closed Session Minutes to acquire property adjacent to the Water Tower
December Agenda – New Business
Swearing In Documents
Board Assignments
Board Meeting Schedule
SUP Process Options
ADA Transition Plan
Notice of proposed CAMA Changes
Rezoning Request 807 Broad Street
Short Term Rental Special Use Permit Request
Tree Board Appointments
Police Report
Manager’s Report
Auxiliary Board Minutes

Posted Friday December 8, 2023 by Allison DeWeese


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