RALEIGH — State Treasurer Dale Folwell issued a sternly worded press statement refuting a claim that the Town of Spring Lake’s new hire for town manager was approved by the Local Government Commission (LGC).
On Oct. 10, the Spring Lake Board of Aldermen voted 3-2 to hire Justine Jones to be the new town manager. Members Adrian Jones Thompson, Sona L. Cooper and Robyn Chadwick voted yes to hiring Jones while Marvin Lackman and Raul Palacios voted against the move.
Cooper said she “put faith in the state’s Local Government Commission, which approved the hire,” according to local news reports.
Spring Lake had provided a list of candidates to LGC staff, but according to Folwell’s release neither the LGC staff nor the commission approved the list of candidates or the selection of any specific candidate.
“Although our staff was silent on this hiring decision, on matters this important, we should never assume that silence is consent,” Folwell said.
He also refuted that the LGC had approved a list of possible town manager candidates that included Jones’ name.
“Our primary goal is to save Spring Lake from drowning and return the town to financial health and operational stability,” Folwell said in an Oct. 13 press release. “New and unsettling information has come to light about the past employment history of the individual who was offered the job. That information does not generate confidence that she is the right fit at this time to lead Spring Lake.”
Jones was previously hired in July as the town manager in the town of Kenly, a small town of fewer than 2,000 people located in Johnston County. Spring Lake is more than five times the size of Kenly with a population of 11,600.
She didn’t last long in the role and was fired a month later after the entire Kenly Police Department and two town clerks quit in protest. Kenly Police Chief Josh Gibson and others accused Jones of creating a “hostile work environment.”
“It has since been learned that Jones also had a rocky employment relationship with Richland County, S.C. After Richland County terminated her employment, Jones filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint that was dismissed, and then sued the county,” Folwell’s press release said.
The state treasurer also mentioned the more than $500,000 in misappropriated funds uncovered for Spring Lake by the N.C. state auditor and said that “other questions about missing town property remain unanswered.”
Folwell, who chairs the LGC, also said he will not approve the funds to hire Jones as the new town manager.
“The town does not need a distraction from the important work they are doing to return the town to fiscal health,” he said while referring to concern over town morale as well as the potential for legal and financial liabilities of the hire.
Spring Lake’s financial issues were so serious that the LGC voted unanimously to assume control of them in 2021.
More recently, the former town manager, Gay Cameron Tucker, pled guilty in late September to charges she embezzled more than $500,000 from the town between 2016 and 2021. The charges followed a March 2022 audit report by State Auditor Beth Wood’s office outlining that more than $430,000 in taxpayer funds were spent for personal use by Tucker and that the case had been referred to the FBI.
The LGC had voiced concerns with Spring Lake’s leadership, including a lack of compliance with state laws and reluctance to work with LGC staff. On April 5, the LGC voted unanimously to issue a letter about those concerns to the mayor of Spring Lake and its Board of Aldermen.
The April vote and letter followed a $1 million loan Spring Lake secured to build a fire station without getting the approval of the LGC as well as a “lack of invoices” from the town attorney related to services provided for the 2022 fiscal year to date.
“We expect the Board of Aldermen to act like professionals and to serve their constituents with the high degree of stewardship and accountability expected of elected officials. In turn, we strive to treat them in a professional manner with respect for their office,” said Folwell. “It is our desire to allow the Board to make the best decisions possible for all taxpayers and residents. However, due to the town’s past inability to stay on course, they are under our power of the public purse, and I believe it is necessary to oppose this selection in the best interests of the community.”