Saturday, April 20, 2024

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Gibsonville’s mayor was harsh, unfair to disgruntled resident

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Rarely have we seen a more high-handed treatment of the public than Gibsonville mayor Lenny Williams employed Monday night during the most recent meeting of the town’s board of aldermen.

Williams instructed town police to remove resident Stephen Efird from the board’s meeting chambers Monday night as Efird tried to address the board about one of the items on its agenda – one which had been carried over from one of last month’s meetings (from March 4).

In fairness to him, Williams is one of the most experienced, and usually one of the most fair, reasonable, and professional presiding officers in his handling of the agenda, his fellow board members, and the public.

But Williams was out of sorts Monday night, not displaying any of his traditionally even-handed characteristics.

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Rather he was at least as hot-headed as the constituent he wanted removed from the meeting.

Granted, the constituent, Efird, was disappointed and visibly irritated at what he, and some other neighbors who voiced their similar displeasure last month, consider to be the town’s lackadaisical attitude, even negligence, toward enforcing its housing codes, especially with respect to one of the houses located at 734 Burlington Avenue along one of the main thoroughfares into the town.

Efird has lived for decades beside a badly decaying house, which he elaborated after the meeting, has also be the scene of drunken parties, drug deals, and other unsavory goings on.  Indeed, the previous owner spent most of the past decade in prison; his absence  undoubtedly contributed to the further deterioration of the house.

Efird wanted answers.  In March, he and other residents had been told that the aldermen would return in April to pick up the agenda item which had called for the demolition of the dilapidated structure. The house had been condemned last November – only the most recent condemnation, according to Efird.

Granted, neighbors (particularly Efird this week) apparently overlooked, forgot, or perhaps just didn’t like the information explained in March that a property owner has the option to seek a building permit to remedy deficiencies with his property, which his new neighboring landowner did.

So at this week’s meeting, the town’s position was that the new owner had successfully obtained building permits for the structure, which could allow it to be retrofitted and brought up to standards.

That, however, was not made very clear during the meeting – and probably wouldn’t have satisfied Efird anyhow.  By his own description to this newspaper in an interview outside town hall after he was thrown out, Efird has been a persistent critic of what he considers the town’s failure to keep its standards up to the stated ordinance requirements.

(In a separate story in this week’s edition, it appears the owner applied for the permits the very next day after the board postponed action at its March 4 meeting.)

But aside from the issue of who may have been right or wrong on the substance (or the process), the mayor was entirely out of line to have Efird evicted from a public  meeting simply because the mayor didn’t like what Efird was saying.

Which is really what it amounted to, from our vantage point.

Efird was not “interrupting, disturbing, or disrupting” the meeting, the state statute’s definition of what circumstances must exist before a presiding officer can direct a person to leave a meeting – much less have him forcibly removed by law enforcement.

As this newspaper’s publisher has pointed out to both Williams and town attorney Bob Giles, the town utterly failed to follow the prescribed procedures before having Efird removed from the town meeting chambers.  As such, they violated the state’s Open Meetings Law.

We can think of fewer than a dozen occasions over the past three decades in which we’ve seen a presiding officer have someone physically removed from what was ostensibly an open, public meeting.

Rarely, by the way, has any court found someone so removed from a local meeting guilty of any crime.

In Efird’s case, he wasn’t formally charged with any crime or violation of a statute, which makes his expulsion all the more inexplicable – and, in our view, indefensible.

Most cases have involved speakers, who, like Efird, grew emotional in their comments. However, usually they involved residents who exceeded the time limits on public comments offered at public meetings – when they refused to sit down after time had expired on the “public comment” period they were using to address a board.

Because of Gibsonville’s more casual atmosphere, residents have not customarily been required to come to the front of the chambers and address the board from a podium. Similarly, there is no time clock set on how long they can speak.

Indeed, the very next item on the aldermen’s agenda involved another disgruntled resident, who was complaining about water runoff behind her house in the Joseph’s Claim subdivision.

The mayor and the board willingly heard her complaint, also as she spoke from her seat in the audience (in the row in front of where Efird had been seated). They even agreed to have the town write a letter to the subdivision’s former developer to try to remedy that homeowner’s complaint.

Why Efird was not extended a similarly deferential and courteous approach we cannot imagine.

Councilman Bryant Crisp made a point after Efird’s eviction that perhaps residents should address the board from the podium.  That’s a bit more formal than Gibsonville’s recent tradition, but that may, in fact, be a better way to handle recognition, public speakers, and overall decorum during their meetings.

The mayor didn’t like the “tone” of Efird’s comments, he explained later. Undoubtedly that was because Efird emphatically questioned whether Gibsonville town officials had evenhandedly applied the law to Efird’s neighbor.

From the viewpoint of Efird and other neighbors who expressed similar sentiments in March, the board’s postponement of any demolition order simply allowed extra time for the new homeowner to start work on “fixing” the dilapidated property. (Again, seeming to ignore the rights of the homeowner to attempt repairs and improvements.)

It will be interesting to see whether work is actually ongoing, or whether the permit is simply being used as a stop-gap method to delay further demolition proceedings.

The new owner ostensibly promised the board he’ll finish the improvements within 90 days (even though the permit allows for up to a year).  That would be about June 5.

We’ll see.

Maybe Gibsonville, and even Efird, will be pleased with the results.

But Efird’s rough treatment from the mayor this week will stand as a stain on the town’s fair treatment of its citizens.

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