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Currituck changes policy for contracts with elected officials

Commissioner Kitty Etheridge.jpg
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Currituck Commissioner Kitty Etheridge

Steinburg.jpg
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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Saturday, August 25, 2018

CURRITUCK — Elected officials who represent Currituck County and want to secure a contract to do business with the county must now get public approval first from the county Board of Commissioners.

Currituck commissioners voted unanimously last week to change the county’s ordinance on awarding contracts to firms owned or represented by elected officials representing the county. Under the change, the county manager and county attorney can no longer approve such contracts without commissioner approval.

The change follows public criticism of county administrators awarding a $50,000 contract in December to a sports promotional company owned by state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, who represents Currituck. The county paid Steinburg's company, the WolfeStein Group, to promote and market an NCAA basketball tournament the county is sponsoring in Asheville this fall called the “visitcurrituckOBX.com Battle in the Blue Ridge.”

County officials and Steinburg have defended the agreement, saying nothing about it was done illegally. Steinburg also has noted he reached out to state ethics officials to have them sign off on the agreement before it was signed.

A citizen blasted both commissioners and Steinburg for the agreement at the board’s Aug. 6 meeting, however, saying while the deal might be legal, the public perception of it “stinks to the heavens and back.”

Cole Phelps, Steinburg’s Democratic opponent in the November election for the state Senate in District 1, has also criticized the deal, calling it wrong because it was “entered into behind closed doors with the manager in Currituck County.” 

A majority of Currituck commissioners have also criticized the county’s contract with Steinburg, claiming they had no prior knowledge of it before it was awarded.

At the Aug. 6 meeting, Commissioner Kitty Etheridge, one of the commissioners who said she had no prior knowledge of the Steinburg contract, recommended commissioners develop guidelines for awarding contracts to elected officials. Etheridge said the guidelines were needed to protect the integrity of both the commission board and public officials wishing to do business with Currituck. 

Referring to Etheridge’s request at last week’s meeting, Board of Commissioners Chairman Bobby Hanig said, “It has come to everyone's realization that we need to make a change.”

Hanig asked County Attorney Ike McRee to read aloud proposed changes to how future contracts are going to be let to elected officials who represent the county.

The changes, as outlined by McRee, state that neither the county attorney nor the county manager can execute any contract with an elected official who represents the county, unless that contract, along with its amount, is first brought before commissioners for approval.

McRee said commissioners will first have to approve such contracts in an open meeting. The contract and any payments then have to be posted by the county for public inspection.

Commissioner Marion Gilbert made the motion for the change, with Commissioner Bob White seconding her motion. The rest of the board voted unanimously to approve the change.

Hanig said the new process is designed to protect both county staff and elected officials.

“I really feel what this is doing is protecting the staff and protecting the elected official from undue scrutiny, either from the public, from the media, from other elected officials,” he said.

Steinburg, reached after the vote, said he doesn't have any problem with Currituck commissioners’ decision.

“If they feel that this is what they want to do to protect all people in hand so that there is no finger-wagging or anything, obviously they've come to that decision. That's fine,” he said. “They're elected by their people and if they feel like this is going to best serve everyone, then so be it.”

“I'm just here to follow the law,” he continued. “That's all, just to do what it is that they want us to do. And, that's it.”

Steinburg maintained that he followed the law and the protocols in place at the time. He also said that when he first approached Currituck about the contract, he thought his request in fact would go before the commissioners. He said he didn't know the request was going to be routed to Currituck’s Travel and Tourism Office.

Steinburg also said he plans to follow Currituck’s protocols “if we should be doing any other business with Currituck County in the future.”

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