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Council approves YMCA funding

Elizabeth City’s dispute with the city-county Tourism Development Authority over how the city can use its share of occupancy-tax proceeds will go to round two next month.

City Council voted Tuesday to provide the YMCA at the Pines a one-time cash infusion to help with operating expenses at the golf course and social venue. However, the motion that passed by a 5-1 vote didn’t specify where the $25,000 will come from.

Councilors Jeannie Young, Billy Caudle, Anita Hummer, Johnnie Walton and Darius Horton voted for providing the one-time funding to the YMCA at the Pines. Councilor Gabriel Adkins cast the lone no vote. Council members Rickey King and Kem Spence did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.

City officials first sought to fund the YMCA at the Pines’ request by asking the Tourism Development Authority to allocate $25,000 from the city’s share of occupancy-tax proceeds. Under the law authorizing the city and Pasquotank County to levy the occupancy tax, both governments receive an equal share of the revenue, about $200,000 a year.

However, by a 6-2 vote on Oct. 24, the TDA board denied the city’s request. Several board members said the city’s request to use the $25,000 to assist YMCA at the Pines was not tourism related.

The YMCA at the Pines had asked both city and county for $25,000 each to help offset the facility’s operating deficits, which are now around $150,000 a year. A regional representative for the YMCA has stated that if the nonprofit doesn’t receive money from the two governments, it will have to close the golf club and meeting venue at the end of the year.

The Pasquotank Board of Commissioners agreed last month to chip in the county’s share of the YMCA’s request, but made the contribution contingent on the city also approving the funding. The TDA also agreed to give a $5,000 grant to the YMCA at the Pines, but stipulated the funds can only be used for marketing purposes outside the immediate area. The TDA grant was also contingent on the city and county contributing to the effort.

Following the TDA board’s decision to deny the city use of the occupancy tax revenue, City Manager Rich Olson and Mayor Bettie J. Parker met with Visit Elizabeth City Executive Director Corrina Ferguson and TDA board members Maureen Donnelly and Abel Sutton on Nov. 7. Parker told city councilors on Tuesday that she Olson asked the TDA officials to reconsider their decision after providing concrete reasons why the city should be allowed to use the funds for the YMCA at the Pines.

“It’s not that the city doesn’t have a pot of money that it can draw it from,” Parker said. “From the TDA, there is $200,000-plus that we can take that $25,000 from as long as we link it with tourism. This is the first time they have said no to us getting money from a pot that is already designated for the council.”

Parker said Tuesday she was still waiting for a response from the TDA.

Ferguson sent an email to Parker and Olson later on Nov. 7 stating that she was still waiting on feedback from TDA board members and would have more information sometime the following week. The TDA sent its answer to the city Wednesday afternoon.

According to a copy of the email, the TDA board said it had agreed to “consider re-evaluating” the city’s request at its Dec. 5 meeting.

“There is no precedent for that request in our organization’s history, thus some background research and consideration among authority board members was necessary,” Ferguson wrote in the email. “If the city would like to make this a formal request, please submit it in writing (email is sufficient), accompanied by any new information pertinent to driving increased overnight visitation to our community that may support the request.”

“I don’t know what kind of sign that is but the city will be making a formal request in writing in the next day or so,” Olson said in response on Wednesday. “We could have already done that when we met in person, but if they want something in writing we will be happy to do that.”

If the city’s second attempt with the TDA fails, the city’s $25,000 for the YMCA at the Pines could come from contingency funds.

During a public hearing held before Tuesday’s vote, five of six speakers who addressed councilors on the YMCA at the Pines urged them to grant the request for funding.

River City Shag Club member Jack Lilienthal urged council to approve the funding, noting the club often uses the YMCA at the Pines for its events. The club, which seeks to preserve the heritage of beach music and shag dancing, has members from all over northeastern North Carolina and gets together for events throughout the year, he said.

Lilienthal, a Moyock resident, said the club has already spent more than $20,000 this year in the city, including $7,700 in rental fees at the Pines and over $13,000 to a local caterer for meals. He also told council that participants at club events have stayed in local hotels in the past.

“There is an element of tourism here with what our club does,” Lilienthal said. “We have socials at the Pines every Wednesday evening and once a month we have our dinner-dance socials. This is a great venue for our club, and we have people come from all over.’’

But city resident Tony Sawyer urged council to deny the request. He said he believes the city is being asked to give the YMCA at the Pines a handout.

“I wouldn’t give them a dime,” Sawyer said. “They claim they are $150,000 in the hole. If that’s the case, somebody needs to be fired or charged with embezzlement instead of asking for money. Every time I ride by there the parking lot is full, people are playing golf. They (YMCA) are taking that money somewhere.”

Jailer hurt after struck by inmate

A jailer at Albemarle District Jail suffered a broken nose and lacerations to his face when a federal inmate struck him with his fists earlier this week, the Pasquotank County sheriff says.

Officer Trey-Vaughn Xavier Lewis suffered the injuries while attempting to conduct a routine check of inmate Christopher Cotton’s cell Monday night, Sheriff Tommy Wooten said.

“He had opened the door to the cell and was immediately struck in the face,” Wooten said, referring to Lewis.

Other jailers immediately came to Lewis’ aid and subdued Cotton, Wooten said.

Wooten said Lewis was “blindsided” by the attack, which he said shows “jailers have to be careful in everything they do.”

“This was done out of pure malice,” Wooten said.

Cotton later told investigators “he wanted to do it (hit Lewis) and he just did it,” Wooten said. “There was no reason” for the attack.

Wooten said Cotton will be charged with assault inflicting serious bodily injury and assault on a government official. He also expects Cotton will be moved from the jail to another detention facility.

At the time he allegedly assaulted Lewis, Cotton was serving an 11-year federal sentence for armed robbery. Cotton is one of a number of federal inmates housed at Albemarle District Jail, Wooten said. The federal government has a contract with the jail, paying it a set fee to house inmates in its custody.

Wooten said Lewis’ injuries will require surgery. He is expected to return to work after then, the sheriff said.

ECSU staff, trustees weigh in on UNC chief search

University of North Carolina System officials promised to keep in mind Elizabeth City State University’s unique needs and regional impact as they undertake the search for the system’s next president.

Randy Ramsey, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors and co-chairman of the UNC presidential search committee, told a forum audience at ECSU’s STEM Complex that selection of UNC System president is the most important decision the board makes. And making the decision requires public input, he said.

“We need your help,” Ramsey said. “Nobody in this room is somebody we’re not listening to.”

The Board of Governors does not already have a preferred candidate for president, he said.

“We do not have anybody picked out,” Ramsey said.

The board also doesn’t have a timetable for selecting a new president, he said, noting its goal is to find the right person for the job.

“We also have not given ourselves a deadline,” said Ramsey, who was joined at Wednesday’s forum by Wendy Murphy, vice chairwoman of the UNC Board of Governors and co-chair of the search panel.

ECSU professor Margery Coulson-Clark said the next UNC president needs to understand how funding works in the UNC System as well as details of how the system operates.

Kellie Hunt Blue, a member of the UNC Board of Governors and the county manager in Robeson County, said the next president will have to learn about all 17 institutions in the UNC System.

Harold Barnes, an ECSU trustee and former board chairman, said the next UNC president will need to understand the importance of minority-serving institutions within the UNC System. The next leader also needs to understand how the delivery of education might change over the next 30 years, particularly given the rising demand for online education, he said.

Murphy, who noted she’s from Duplin County, said the UNC System needs to consider what a campus can do for its region, particularly with so many communities in eastern North Carolina hurting economically.

Jan King Robinson, chairwoman of the ECSU trustee board, said the UNC system can make a difference in K-12 education across the state. The president should know that coming in, she said.

Ramsey said the board is looking for someone who is passionate about the university system’s importance for K-12 education.

“The strategic plan asks all the universities to do more,” Ramsey said.

Alyn Goodson, ECSU’s general counsel and vice chancellor for operations, noted ECSU is located in a region with a high number of tier 1 and tier 2 counties. He said he would like the president of the UNC System to see that investment in ECSU is an investment in the people who live in the region.

“You won’t find anybody on the board that disagrees with you,” Ramsey said.

Blue said she certainly understands that. Pembroke wouldn’t be a town if it weren’t for UNC-Pembroke, she said.

Scott Bradshaw, a professor and faculty leader at ECSU, said he believes it’s important for the UNC System to have a leader who is collaborative and will not come with a preconceived “perfect plan” for the system.

Ramsey said he agrees and believes the board as a whole agrees.

“I think if anybody shows up with a ‘perfect plan’ we’re likely not going to interview them,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said the entire Board of Governors is proud of ECSU and the transformation that has taken place in what he said was a “broken” institution.

ECSU shows what can be accomplished “when people like the people in this room come together,” Ramsey said.

Kim Strach, executive director of the UNC presidential search, said the search committee will incorporate public feedback in developing a position profile that will summarize the mission of the UNC System, describe the goals in the 2022 strategic plan, and list the roles and qualities of the president in relation to the system’s goals and mission.

The public can help identify the essential qualities of the president and also can submit names of candidates who might have those qualities, she said.

“Give us names,” Strach said. “Tell us who you think fits those roles.”

Ramsey said the public is invited to submit names of candidates they’d like to see considered for the job of UNC president. He also asked the public complete an online survey at www.northcarolina.edu/PresidentialSearch.

Impeachment witness says Trump asked about Ukraine probes (copy)

WASHINGTON — A top American diplomat revealed new evidence Wednesday of President Donald Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine to investigate political rivals as House investigators launched public impeachment hearings for just the fourth time in the nation’s history.

William Taylor, the highest-ranking U.S. official in Ukraine, said for the first time that Trump was overheard asking another ambassador about “the investigations” he had urged Ukraine’s leader to conduct one day earlier. Taylor said he learned of Trump’s phone call with the ambassador only in recent days.

Republicans retorted that the Democrats still have no more than second- and third-hand knowledge of allegations that Trump held up millions of dollars in military aid for the Eastern European nation facing Russian aggression. Trump is accused of trying to trade that aid for Ukrainian investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee.

The hearing, the first on television for the nation to see, provided hours of partisan back-and-forth but so far no singular moment etched in the public consciousness as grounds for removing the 45th president from office. Trump, who was meeting at the White House with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared he was “too busy” to watch.

The long day of testimony unfolded partly the way Democrats leading the inquiry wanted: in the somber tones of two career foreign service officers who described confusion both within the U.S. government and in Ukraine about what Trump wanted from Kyiv. Taylor testified alongside George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department.

Taylor said his staff recently told him they overheard Trump’s phone call with another diplomat, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, at a restaurant the day after Trump’s July 25 phone call with the new leader of Ukraine that sparked the impeachment investigation. The staffer explained that Sondland had called the president and Trump could be heard asking about “the investigations.” Sondland told the president the Ukrainians were ready to move forward, Taylor testified.

The impeachment inquiry was launched after an anonymous whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, including a July phone call in which he urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate unfounded corruption allegations into Biden and Biden’s son — all while the United States was holding up U.S. military aid.

At the start, Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, outlined the question at the core of the impeachment inquiry — whether the president used his office for personal political gain.

“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” said Schiff of California. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander in chief.”

Republicans lawmakers immediately pushed Democrats to hear in closed session from the anonymous whistleblower. Schiff denied the request at the time but said it would be considered later.

“We will do everything necessary to protect the whistleblower’s identity,” Schiff declared.

The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, said Trump had a “perfectly good reason” for wanting to investigate the role of Democrats in 2016 election interference, giving airtime to a theory that runs counter to mainstream U.S. intelligence which found that Russia intervened and favored Trump.

Nunes accused the Democratic majority of conducting a “scorched earth” effort to take down the president after the special counsel’s Russia investigation into the 2016 election failed to spark impeachment proceedings.

“We’re supposed to take these people at face value when they trot out new allegations?” said Nunes, a top Trump ally.

Nunes called the Ukraine matter a “low rent” sequel to the Russia probe. “Democrats are advancing their impeachment sham,” he said.

Both Taylor and Kent defied White House instructions not to testify. They both received subpoenas to appear.

The veteran foreign service officers delivered heartfelt history lessons about Ukraine, a young and hopeful democracy, situated next to Russia but reaching out to the West.

Asked about a text message released earlier in the probe in which Taylor called it “crazy” to withhold the security aid to a foreign ally, he said, “It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”

Kent, in his opening remarks, directly contradicted a core complaint against Joe Biden being raised by allies of the White House, saying he never heard any U.S. official try to shield a Ukraine company from investigations.

Kent acknowledged that he himself raised concerns in 2015 about the then vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, being on the board of Burisma, a Ukraine gas company. He warned that it could give the “perception of a conflict of interest.” But Kent indicated no one from the U.S. was protecting the company from investigations in Ukraine as Republicans have implied.

“Let me be clear; however, I did not witness any efforts by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny,” Kent said.

He did not go into detail about the issues central to the impeachment inquiry, but he voiced his concerns with them.

“I do not believe the United States should ask other countries to engage in selective, politically associated investigations or prosecutions against opponents of those in power, because such selective actions undermine the rule of law regardless of the country,” he said.

So far, the narrative being unspooled in weeks of investigations for the inquiry is splitting Americans, mostly along the same lines as Trump’s unusual presidency. The Constitution sets a dramatic but vague bar for impeachment, and there’s no consensus yet that Trump’s actions at the heart of the inquiry meet the threshold of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

At its core, the inquiry stems from Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy when he asked the Zelenskiy for “a favor.”

Trump wanted the Ukraine government to investigate Democrats in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden.

The anonymous whistleblower first alerted officials to concerns about the phone call. The White House released a rough transcript of the conversation, with portions deleted.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was initially reluctant to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. But she pressed ahead in September after the whistleblower’s complaint.

Over the past month, witness after witness has appeared behind closed doors to tell the investigators what they know.

Whether Wednesday’s proceedings begin to end a presidency or help secure Trump’s position, it was certain his chaotic term had finally arrived at a place he could not control and a force, the constitutional system of checks and balances, that he could not ignore.

Unlike the Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon, there is not yet a “cancer-on-the-presidency” moment galvanizing public opinion. Nor is there the national shrug, as happened when Bill Clinton’s impeachment ultimately didn’t result in his removal from office. It’s perhaps most like the partisanship-infused impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the Civil War.


Associated Press writers Colleen Long, Mike Balsamo, Eric Tucker, Laurie Kellman, Alan Fram, Zeke J. Miller and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.