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After tensions, council to require cop at closed sessions

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Elizabeth City City Council voted Monday to require a city police officer — Chief Eddie Buffaloe Jr., by default — to remain nearby to provide security during its closed sessions.

The vote apparent was the result of internal disagreements among councilors, not an external threat.

At Monday’s meeting, First Ward Councilor Jeannie Young asked for a police presence at future closed sessions in response to a closed-door meeting council held about personnel on July 22.

Young alleged that she and city staff faced “hostility” and “tremendous anger” from another councilor. She did not name the councilor, but it became apparent during the council’s discussion that she was referring to 4th Ward Councilor Johnnie Walton.

“I was absolutely mortified and appalled by this councilor’s unjustified, inflammatory name-calling,” Young said, also claiming the councilor had created a “hostile work environment” for an employee.

Walton defended his conduct during the July 22 closed session.

“It was not just me involved in the altercation,” Walton said Monday, continuing that, “if we think that a person that’s attacked will not respond … we’re just living in a fantasy world.”

Walton also noted that he and fellow 4th Ward Councilor Darius Horton called for a special meeting about security concerns earlier this month, but too many councilors were absent — Young included — to take any official action. He suggested Young should have attended the meeting, if security concerns were urgent to her.

Walton also strongly denied he holds any antipathy toward Young. He claimed she yelled out to him “Johnnie Walton, why do you hate me so?” after a recent council meeting.

God told him to stay silent when she asked that, Walton said, but he said Monday he didn’t hate Young or anyone else.

Young denied asking Walton that and said it was irrelevant to the security discussion.

Though defending his conduct, Walton said he didn’t oppose an officer being present for closed sessions — provided the officer is stationed just outside the closed door, not inside the room with councilors.

Council could have an officer inside the meeting room during a closed session, City Attorney Bill Morgan said. Just like other city officials, they’d be required to not publicly discuss the business of the session, he explained.

Horton said he also doesn’t oppose having security for closed sessions. However, he didn’t feel councilors had created “hostile work environment” or made threats toward anyone during last month’s closed session.

Horton also said city staff has to respect the council, continuing “but at the end of the day, when we have employees that work for this city that feel like they’ve been victimized with racist actions, and we begin to talk about it, and it causes conflict, that’s a situation in itself.”

Apparently referring to the closed session, Horton described it as including a conversation between two people. “And no one else should’ve gotten in that conversation, because it didn’t concern anybody else,” he said.

Second Ward Councilor Gabriel Adkins didn’t name councilors, but faulted others for discussing the closed session too openly in the community. In the days following the meeting, people asked him what had happened; his mother also asked him whether there had been heated discussion between a councilor and City Manager Rich Olson.

“This particular meeting seems to have surfaced around Elizabeth City very quickly,” Adkins said, calling for councilors to follow their rules and procedures and not discuss closed sessions with the public.

Young and other councilors didn’t say whether they talked about the meeting in the community. In bringing up the closed session Monday, Young said she didn’t want councilors to think they could get away with “bullying tactics” in closed session.

Morgan noted that councilors’ conduct, unlike that of personnel, may not legally be discussed in closed session.

Similar to Young, 2nd Ward Councilor Anita Hummer and 1st Ward Councilor Billy Caudle also voiced concerns about the July 22 closed session.

Hummer said, “I’ve never been in a meeting quite like that one,” while Caudle said he felt a “line was certainly crossed.”

Caudle asked if Mayor Bettie Parker already had the authority to require officers at closed sessions.

Parker said she may require additional police presence temporarily, but requiring it for every meeting would take council action. She cited guidance she received from the N.C. League of Municipalities and the University of North Carolina School of Government about the issue.

Third Ward Councilor Kem Spence said he trusted the city’s sergeant at arms — by policy the chief of police — to be at meetings, but accepted Walton’s concern and moved to require the officer be stationed outside of the meeting room.

Third Ward Councilor Rickey King, council’s mayor pro tem, seconded Spence’s motion, and also encouraged the police department to put only higher-ranking officers in charge of closed session security. A young officer might not be comfortable intervening between councilors, he explained.

Councilors approved the motion unanimously.

In an interview after the meeting, Olson said the police department would use only higher-ranking officers for closed session security.

Olson declined to comment on the July 22 closed session, including whether he felt it made for a hostile work environment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes a hostile work environment as one created by sustained harassment that violates non-discrimination laws on race, religion, sex, disability, etc.

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