Wednesday, September 28, 2022

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Rural Hall town council defenders of Garner claim ‘smear campaign’ was designed to drive her out

Megan Garner, who is scheduled to start work November 15 as Graham’s new city manager, was the victim of a “smear campaign” orchestrated to force her out of her job as the town manager for Rural Hall, three former councilmen insist (see related story, this edition).

John McDermon, Ricky Plunkett, and Jesse Stigall resigned from Rural Hall’s town council on October 21, the same day Garner resigned as the town manager.

Graham’s city council voted unanimously on October 22 to hire Garner as city manager, replacing Frankie Maness, who resigned earlier this year to become the county manager in his native Montgomery County.

The three Rural Hall councilmen pointed to two years’ of turmoil within the town’s administration and on the council itself as the basis for resigning, based on copies of their resignation letters that the town of Rural Hall furnished this week in response to a public records request by The Alamance News.

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While some of its more urban neighbors may view the controversy surrounding Rural Hall as a tempest in a teapot, McDermon, an 18-year councilman and now former mayor pro tem, described in his resignation letter a series of events that had transpired over the last two years and that had left him battle-weary.

A 44-year resident of Rural Hall and 18-year councilman, McDermon described the last two years as “horrific” in explaining his decision to resign.

The most scurrilous claim – that $1.5 million had vanished from the town’s bank account after Garner became town manager – was completely unfounded, according to McDermon.

That rumor apparently began swirling in late 2019, following the election of council member Susan Gordon, based on the resignation letter that McDermon submitted October 21, which the town furnished to the newspaper this week.

Along with Rural Hall mayor Tim Flinchum, the first-term incumbent Gordon is the sole remaining council member of the original five before the three resignations. On October 21, Gordon cast the sole vote against paying Garner a “six-figure settlement,” as the severance package is termed in a pending lawsuit that has been filed by the town’s interim attorney, Randolph (“Randy”) James.

 

‘Evil has eaten away at the soul of Rural Hall’
“This rumor traced directly to a new council member who either didn’t understand that town bank account balances routinely vary in large amounts over several years or she had some agenda,” McDermon recalled in his resignation letter. “The entire council discussed this at our next meeting. Our auditors have never reported any major or troubling discrepancy in our town finances – and they comb through then quite carefully every year. They do what we pay them to do – make sure our financials are accurate and complete. You may relax – no town money is missing. And it troubles me that I even feel obligated to have to say that.”
The smear campaign ultimately escalated into Garner receiving “anonymous threatening text messages” and phone calls at her home, based on McDermon’s account. “It was hurtful and took a toll. Evil was prevailing. All this in our quiet little town of Rural Hall.”

A disgruntled, former employee had been allowed at one town council meeting – unfettered by mayor Flinchum, who presided over the meeting – to unleash a “nasty, childish tantrum” and an “avalanche of accusation after accusation” about Garner for the maximum time limit of six minutes for public comments. “In my 73 years on this planet, and 18 years on the town council, I had never witnessed such vile and vicious public disrespect for any human being,” McDermon wrote.

“I had long believed that this level of hateful speech, cutthroat behavior and nasty, defamatory lies only existed at the national political level,” the former mayor pro tem wrote.

“It seems that it has found a new home in Rural Hall. I do not accept that this is the way a local government should function.

“This evil has eaten away at the soul of the Rural Hall community that I thought I knew,” McDermon continued.

“What has this led to?” McDermon wrote in his October 21 resignation letter. “Our town manager is leaving.”

“This evil in Rural Hall has reached its goal,” the now-former mayor pro tem wrote. “We will no longer have a quality, professional town manager and indeed the town appears to be on the brink of returning to the ‘Good Old Boy’ days of town government.” McDermon urged his fellow residents to pay attention to who ultimately benefits now that the town manager’s job is vacant.

“The hate fueled, almost warlike shenanigans that I have witnessed for the past two years have worn on me,” McDermon explained. “I cannot begin to express how disappointed I have been in a few Rural Hall citizens – some of whom I thought I knew quite well [but obviously didn’t]. With all this in mind, I have decided that I cannot remain on this town council for two more years to work with elected officials who demonstrated a lack of respect and support for our town manager, Ms. Garner. She deserved better. Things like this are a shameful stain on the town of Rural Hall and those who have promoted it.”

 

Slander by ‘some’ council and historical society members
Plunkett, a 12-year Rural Hall town councilman, lodged similar claims against Gordon in his October 21 resignation letter.

“I strongly disagree with the treatment of our staff by some members of this elected body and citizens,” Plunkett wrote. “Our town manager has been the subject of many of these attacks, including false accusations and lies.”

In his resignation letter, Plunkett claimed that “some members” of the town council and “some members” of the town’s historical society “made slanderous comments against staff and council and lost their focus on the history of Rural Hall.”

“The prior town administration followed our current town manager [Garner] around town recently while she was on official business” and was accompanied by an out-of-town consultant, Plunkett wrote. “These actions and others are intolerable.”

‘Determined effort’ by Gordon
Stigall cited “the actions of two of our elected officials” as his reason for resigning. “Council member Susi Gordon has made a determined effort to rid the town of good employees and rally people to her cause,” Stigall claimed in his resignation letter. “I have never seen a town more divided and believing things that are absolutely untrue.”

The now-former councilman also faulted Flinchum, “who is supposed to serve as our presiding official,” for allowing personal attacks on town employees during council meetings.

In his resignation letter, Stigall implied that Flinchum’s failure to curtail this type of behavior at council meetings was part of a broader effort to “undermine staff.”

For their part, neither Gordon nor Flinchum had responded to requests for comment on the resignations or the allegations leveled by their three former councilmen, The Winston-Salem Journal reported.

The Alamance News has not attempted to contact the two remaining incumbents on Rural Hall’s town council, as is the newspaper’s customary practice with cases that involve pending litigation.

 

‘Every action followed the law’
The three former councilmen took aim this week at an allegation that they effectively conspired to pay Garner a “six-figure settlement agreement,” in violation of state law and her employment contract with the town of Rural Hall.

“We were accused of violating state law by approving a severance package for Garner, the former town manager,” the three former town councilmen wrote in a letter to the editor that ran Tuesday in The Winston-Salem Journal, referring to an October 28 news story. “This is false. Every action taken by the council followed the law, as was confirmed to us by then-town attorney D. Barrett Burge.”

Burge had served as the town attorney for Rural Hall for 45 years, according to the resignation letter that McDermon submitted on October 21.

Burge resigned the same day, October 21, apparently without notice.

Rural Hall town clerk Dora K. Moore submitted her resignation on October 13 and worked the standard two weeks’ notice, through October 27, The Winston-Salem Journal reported.

“[Garner] launched family movie nights at the park, brought in food trucks, and encouraged safe social activities during the pandemic,” the three former councilmen wrote in their letter to the editor. “Nevertheless, she became the target of a smear campaign, orchestrated by a few residents of the town and intended to drive her out of the job.”

 

‘All them folks at the town hall got to go’
Though they didn’t elaborate, the three former councilmen wrote in their letter to the editor that they had been pressured to further the smear campaign.

In his resignation letter, McDermon recalled that he had received a phone call in late 2019 – from a caller who he didn’t identify – to solicit his participation in spreading “damaging rumors” about Garner. He said he hoped it had been a bad dream but “soon learned that this harassment campaign was all too real,” according to McDermon’s resignation letter.

McDermon said in his resignation letter that, months later, apparently sometime in 2020, he began receiving text messages “and a phone call” demanding that he join the effort to oust Garner as town manager.

“I was told that I would be sorry if I didn’t,” McDermon wrote in his October 21 resignation letter. “The caller added, ‘All them folks at the town hall got to go.’ I do not to this day know what he meant by that. Again, I emphatically declined.”

Garner grew up in Harnett County and holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in public administration from East Carolina University, according to earlier news reports. She began her career in public administration as the clerk to the Moore County board of commissioners before going on to become a grants administrator in the Moore County public works department.

Garner was hired as the Anson County manager in December 2015 and as the town manager for Rural Hall in July 2017, based on news stories published at the time.

Meanwhile, state Treasurer Dale Folwell, a native of the area who previously served on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board and represented the county in the state house for eight years, has asked state Auditor Beth Wood to conduct an investigative audit into the town of Rural Hall’s finances. Wood had not publicly responded by press time.


Read full texts of the three town councilmen’s resignation letters HERE

See other story in this week’s edition: https://alamancenews.com/new-town-council-in-rural-hall-plans-to-sue-former-mgr-grahams-new-mgr-over-100k-severance-package/

See background stories on Garner’s hiring by Graham’s city council the day after she resigned in Rural Hall: https://alamancenews.com/graham-council-votes-unanimously-to-hire-new-city-manager-megan-garner-will-be-the-citys-first-woman-in-the-top-spot/

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