Thursday, June 30, 2022

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

Something’s wrong in Graham city government

We haven’t commented previously and see no need to venture into the lawsuits and kerfuffle surrounding Graham city manager Megan Garner.

The former Rural Hall town manager was hired by Graham in the midst of a cloud of accusations that arose about Garner’s tenure during the four years she served as that town’s top administrator.

Was it appropriate for her to seek a $150,000 settlement (35 percent more than the
roughly $111,514 she made as manager, by the way) on her way out the door?

Is there any substance to Rural Hall’s insistence that Garner engaged in an inappropriate dating relationship with that town’s fire chief, Andy Marshall, which is now also alleged by the chief’s former spouse, Stacy Marshall?

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We don’t know, but there sure is a broadening cloud of smoke surrounding Garner ever since she came here.

We did think it a bit of a stretch that the city council would think that someone who had managed a small town of approximately 3,500 was a good fit, and competent, to handle the much-larger size of Graham city government, which serves a population of 15,000 or almost five times larger than her previous post.

But we had been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. But now our doubts are mounting.

Nowhere more so than this week when Garner sprung on the city council at the end of an already long meeting (almost five hours’ worth) a proposal for a huge increase in water and sewer rates for Graham residents, businesses, and industries.

Here are our questions of fundamental competence:

Garner now says that Graham faces dire, dire consequences if the city doesn’t move – and move fast – to increase water and sewer rates.

So, we acknowledge Garner didn’t create the challenges Graham may face in complying with state and federal environmental regulations, all of which apparently are contributing to the amount the city must invest in improving the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

And she’s not responsible for the increasing construction costs, the price tag for which is apparently exploding; at least one source has told us that the upgrades at the wastewater plant, which were estimated in 2020 to be high already, at $31 million, are now topping $70 million.

What she is responsible for is failing to alert the council – of Graham’s residents – to these challenges and issues before this week.

She’s been on the job about five months. Yet we do not remember a single word she has uttered during that time (prior to this week) to suggest that any of these issues might be confronting the city – any time, much less immediately.

Her budget outline, as submitted to the city council Tuesday night, fails to outline specifics about either the actual projected increase in costs for the wastewater treatment plant upgrades – or to state the level of rate hikes that are contemplated by her budget.

So much detail is omitted that no one reading her budget cold would have a clue that she’s envisioning a 52 percent increase in both basic water and sewer rates!

When asked by this newspaper’s reporter at the city council meeting what was the percent of the rate increases being proposed, Garner claimed not to know.

The only reason we can calculate the increase is that we asked about the level of existing rates (which were conveniently omitted from her written presentation).

But for her to claim she “doesn’t know” the level of rate increases in her own budget, we’d have to say is either a sign of sheer incompetence or of being disingenuous, either of which is a very troubling sign about her abilities to handle the Graham job.

And the idea that she wants the city council to implement those increases with less than week’s notice to the general public is appalling, indeed.

Many residents, businesses, and industries simply cannot adjust to that level of increase on such short notice.

Garner has about another month on the “probation period” Graham included in her initial employment contract. The city council may need to begin evaluating whether, in fact, Garner is up to performing the “functions and duties,” in the parlance of the contract, expected of a city manager.

Here’s a much more minor item, but one which also calls into question her ability to manage the city’s business even in small things.

Garner is largely responsible for setting the city council’s agenda. While she is supposed to be doing so in consultation with mayor Jennifer Talley, Talley says she has not always been consulted before the agenda is set and sent out.

This week’s agenda was so long that after five hours (at 11:00 p.m.), the council finally gave up and recessed to resume (on item 5 out of 15) next Thursday, April 22 at 6:00.

Likewise, March’s meeting lasted almost six hours, concluding shortly before midnight – although the council did march through the entire agenda then.

There are simply too many items being incorporated, many of which are neither important nor deserving of the council’s time or attention.

 

Demand in Graham for glorified electric skateboards?
This week’s council agenda, for example, included a seemingly innocuous agenda item, listed only as “Special Presentation.”

The “presentation” was actually little more than a 15-minute commercial for an “electric micro-mobility vehicle” company, which is bureaucratic and/or special interest gobbledygook for electric scooters.

Oh, dear reader, you weren’t aware that there was pent-up demand for Graham to have electric scooters?

Don’t worry. You’re not alone. There is no known demand for such a “service,” much less one that necessitates the city of Graham lending its credibility to the company’s promotion of it.

Yet this presentation was on how the city of Graham should be interested in allowing this company to establish a “presence” to operate 50 to 75 scooters within certain areas of the city.

The presenter claimed that the company “indemnifies” the cities where it is allowed to operate. That’s a good thing to know, since a quick Google search, and common sense, will certainly reveal a good deal about the frequency of accidents that these little scooters are likely to have – and have had.

It’s no coincidence that many cities where such scooters were once allowed have now withdrawn their accommodation for them – most precisely because of safety concerns.

Perhaps the scooter company thought it could pull a fast one on a small town that might be eager to sign on the dotted line for some, ostensibly free, “pilot program,” that the scooter representative was peddling this week.

But this item on the agenda wasted 15 minutes of the council’s time.

Squandering that amount of time became even more significant with the clock striking 11:00 before the council could adjourn.

But even more offensive, the elevation of this item to the beginning of the council meeting meant that actual Graham residents who wanted to hear or speak on various other items on the council agenda had to wait until this meaningless infomercial was completed.

We urge the mayor to insist on clearing future items for inclusion on the council agenda. As best we understand it, that’s part of the role of being mayor – in Graham and anywhere else.

How this item made it past the city manager at all, much less its prominence to being the third item on the agenda – behind only the invocation and Pledge of Allegiance – is questionable, indeed.

Surely Graham can find better bureaucrats to screen what comes before the city council.

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