Currituck responds to tourism deal criticism

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H.V. Cole

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

CURRITUCK – A local businessman blasted Currituck County's $50,000 contract with a company operated by Rep. Bob Steinburg, saying he's giving the legislator, the Currituck Commission and whoever else was involved in the deal a proverbial “black eye.” 

H.V. Cole, president of Forbes Homes in Elizabeth City, spoke in the public comment phase of Monday evening's Currituck Commission meeting. Cole identified himself to the Currituck Commission as living off Brumsey Road in Currituck and added he has been in Currituck “40-plus years.”

“I'm coming tonight to talk about a black eye,” Cole told Currituck's seven-member governing board.

“We had our representative, Mr. Steinburg, to come to this county, looking for the golden goose. And he found it with Currituck County. And he took the money from the golden goose and left and said, 'Thank you',” Cole said.

Cole was referring to reports late last month about Steinburg's sports marketing company having reached a deal in late 2017 with Currituck. The terms called for the county to help sponsor the “Battle in the Blue Ridge” NCAA tournament this Thanksgiving weekend in Asheville.

Currituck Travel and Tourism Director Tameron Kugler has maintained the sponsorship offers the county valuable nationwide exposure.

Steinburg, R-Edenton, couldn't be reached on Tuesday, but he has said he pre-cleared approaching Currituck with a state legislative ethics official.

During Monday evening's Currituck Commission meeting, Cole said the contract might be legal, “but back in the country where I come from, they call it stinking to the heavens and back.”

Cole said Steinburg should've known the deal was wrong and said, “We're going to give Mr. Steinburg a black eye.”

Additionally, Cole told the commissioners, “I'm going to have to give y'all a black eye because y'all should have known about it. Somebody down the line okayed this.

“And I think we, the citizens of this county, need to know who that was. I'm not just arguing. I know what kind of pressure they (county staff) were probably under,” he said.

He acknowledged he has dealt in politics for a long time, but he said, “This is just not right, folks.”

He also said he believes if Currituck has another $50,000 to give in the future, the money should be allocated to the Currituck public schools system's teachers to help them purchase supplies.

Commissioner Bob White, in response to Cole, pointed out the $50,000 came from county occupancy tax and not county property tax revenues.

“So, at no point did your tax money end up getting used to sponsor that event,” White said.

Commissioner Kitty Etheridge said she doesn't need to address the legality or the ethics of the contract, given Steinburg having stated the document is both legal and ethical.

However, Etheridge said, “What I think needs to be addressed is the perception.”

“A perception is a thought, a belief or an opinion often held by many people and based on appearances,” as shown by Cole's remarks moments earlier, Etheridge said.

“But, the conduct of government officials and public employees affects personal and public perception of – and trust for – our government,” she said.

“I – and I hope this board – have an obligation to the public we serve, as well as to the public officials who serve us to make sure that the public does not lose trust in their government,” she said.

She recommended the commission discuss and develop guidelines to protect the integrity of the board and public officials who wish to do business with Currituck.

Commission Chairman Bobby Hanig, in response to Cole and Etheridge, said no Currituck employee was under any duress at any time “by any stretch of any imagination” to make the contract go through.

Hanig said he spoke with County Attorney Ike McRee and many others in the state.

“We are often applauded for how strict our processes are to achieve a contract in Currituck County,” he said.

Hanig went on to state he believes perception is arbitrary.

“If you feel something is incorrect and you can quantify that statement, then I would accept that statement,” he said.

Hanig said he believes at no time was Currituck out of line in letting the contract.

“And they went through every single process – travel, tourism, county staff, the county manager and the county attorney – went through every single process, 100 percent complete and to the letter of the law,” he said.

“I want to be very clear on that,” he said.

Steinburg and County Manager Dan Scanlon have said they signed the deal in December.

Currituck officials have also said commissioners were aware of and supported the deal, although the board didn't formally vote to approve the document.

Hanig and Commission Vice Chairman Mike Payment have said they knew of Steinburg's involvement in the deal, but White and Commissioner Marion Gilbert have said they didn't.

Etheridge and Commissioners Paul Beaumont and Mike Hall have said Scanlon should have told them Currituck was doing business with a state lawmaker.