“I thought you had respect for me.”
— Alderwoman Jameesha Harris to Mayor Dana Outlaw
Maybe the city attorney sent them a memo, but it sure seemed odd that the Board of Alderman had a nearly half-hour, frank and open discussion on Tuesday about an appointee whose name they took great pains to avoid saying.
So we won’t, either.
Suffice it to say that tumult arose over the last week or so about this Board Member Who Shall Not Be Named (or BMWSNBN for short; we’ll just call him “B”).
Many people are offended by a Facebook page that “B” started that reflects a strident, far-right view of the world and are concerned those views will find their way into city policy.
Other people are offended that Mayor Dana Outlaw appointed yet another white guy to represent the interests of Black and Brown people.
Still others object to “B’s” stance on LGBTQ issues, having said in the past that Drag Queens are pedophiles in response to a Drag Queen story time at a local school.
There’s even an allegation that “B” called a staff member a “failure” and a “disappointment” during an open meeting.
There’s no proof he said that last part, however. The Post is still trying to track it down.
Ward and Smith PA, the New Bern law firm contracted by the Housing Authority to represent it, advised the board that it does not need to record meetings and that written minutes should be kept instead.
There was no recording of the July 20 Zoom meeting when “B” allegedly made his comment, and no hint of it in the draft minutes of the meeting.
If there was evidence that “B” deserves to be fired, Mayor Outlaw says, he might take action.
“There’s nothing there to go on,” Outlaw said, and without any evidence against “B”, then it just comes down to people disliking his politics.
And it’s not “B’s” politics that Outlaw was looking for in an appointee to the board. It’s a person’s ability to ask the hard questions, a skillset which apparently Outlaw has been having difficulty finding from among the city’s 23,400 adults.
Even the retired police officer and the school principal he appointed weren’t getting the job done.
But “B” is getting the job done, said both Mayor Outlaw and Alderman Sabrina Bengel (more on Bengel shortly).
The ‘B’ questions
The draft minutes to the July 20 meeting have not yet been approved by the board, but in them they state Commission Chairman Steven Strickland asked about HUD funding and Commissioner Chris Ormond asked about bids for a security surveillance system.
There were two references to discussions but no details. Maybe that’s where all those good questions were.
Both Ormond and Strickland opposed proposed across-the-board 5 percent raises for Housing Authority staff, saying that only “over achievers” should get raises, according to the minutes.
Alderman Barbara Best represents Ward 5, which has a one in six chance, maybe even better, of being “B’s” home ward.
She said she received phone calls from people upset that “B” was appointed to the board.
She said that while she is not involved in the Housing Authority, she watched “some of these videos, and was a little alarmed by some of it.” It’s unclear what videos she referred to, because meeting videos are not kept, but she added that there is a need “to treat each individual with dignity and respect.”
Alderman Johnnie Ray Kinsey added his own bit. He said he also received phone calls.
“I appreciate that he (Mayor Outlaw) said he would talk about it,” Kinsey said.
Neither Alderman Jeffrey Odham nor Alderman Bobby Aster had anything to say about the issue.
Ward 2 Alderwoman Jameesha Harris
That brings us to Alderwoman Jameesha Harris.
“B” was not on the agenda Tuesday. “B” was brought up by aldermen during the “New business” portion of the meeting.
Harris has been having a tough pandemic. She spoke of a medical issue that should have kept her home on Tuesday but said she needed to be there in person.
That’s because of all the people in New Bern, “B” has been a bee in her bonnet.
Taking umbrage at political stands she has taken, “B” through his Facebook page paid Facebook to push posts out to a broader audience where he criticized her, some say relentlessly.
Knowing this, Mayor Outlaw appointed “B” anyway.
Aldermen and the mayor are elected to represent their own specific wards and have “a duty to bring it to you guys whether it is positive or negative,” Harris said.
She expects Alderman Bengel to bring up any concerns and issues relative to the Housing Authority, since it is in Bengel’s ward.
Issues such as “B” being appointed to the board might be one such issue worth being mentioned. Instead, “B” was appointed months ago and it took this long for people to notice.
(The Housing Authority board is a low profile board that oversees management of Trent Court and New Bern Towers. It used to oversee Craven Terrace until management of it was outsourced.)
Yes, it was the Mayor’s appointment, but appointments should be discussed moving forward, Harris said.
And then this:
Turning her attention to Mayor Outlaw, she said, “I am actually disgusted and disappointed that you thought it was OK to appoint this individual to the board, knowing that for two years this person has caused a lot of issues.
“As the mayor, you represent all demographics in the city of New Bern. That’s white, black, poor, rich, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Gay, Straight, Transgender. This individual has said twice that drag queens are pedophiles. I think that is not appropriate or conducive for someone who sits as an appointed official or an appointed member of a board.”
Harris said “B” is telling people that all of Trent Court will be torn down and that residents there fear they will have no place to go. To top it all, “B” allegedly called the Housing Authority’s interim executive director a failure and a disappointment in an open meeting.
(The Post is attempting to track down anyone who overheard the comment. If that’s you, contact the Post.)
Harris said “B” has harassed her in the past. Speaking so disparagingly about a staff person in a public meeting is unusual to the point of being inappropriate.
Wait — isn’t Alderwoman Harris speaking disparagingly about “B” in an open meeting? Shouldn’t “B” be given the same respect?
Maybe not. “B” isn’t staff; he’s appointed to a board, in essence an elected person, elected by one person — the mayor. Decisions he makes affect public policy. Besides that, he’s a public figure, made so by the video program he produces and his Facebook page, which has more than 50,000 followers.
The allegedly insulted interim executive director is a woman, and a black woman at that. Which raises the question: Would “B” display such disrespectful, discourteous treatment of staff who are men, or who are white?
But the Post digresses.
Back to Harris, she said Outlaw should have performed his due diligence as to who he appoints to boards, “especially when they represent something outside of who they are.
“And you are appointing him to the Housing Authority board, which represents low-income, marginalized communities. There is also the LGBTQ that live in that community.
“I am here tonight for a lot of other people asking that you reconsider that appointment or ask for his resignation. He may be able to ask a million and one questions and that’s great, anyone can do that on the board, but you have to have heart for what you are doing,” Harris said.
She said racial tension exists in New Bern that a lot of people seem to close their eyes to.
Harris asked about “B’s” qualifications and said Outlaw made a poor decision and showed a lack of leadership, but he could set it right by firing “B” or asking him to resign.
For his part, Mayor Outlaw said he is satisfied with “B’s” performance and that his main goal is safe, affordable housing.
“B” has gotten a lot of answers for Outlaw that he has not gotten from other appointees.
Outlaw said his concerns about future income stream, vacancies in Trent Court and New Bern Towers, and a lack of maintenance have been bothering him for some time, and “B” has “gotten me a lot of answers.”
But rather than discuss all this in an open meeting, Outlaw said he was more than glad to meet with Harris and “B” alone, or, as he said later, “glad to work with you any time with that individual.”
Said Harris: “Obviously that’s not going to happen.”
“We know the type of person that this individual is,” Harris said about “B”, claiming that the Housing Authority’s entire maintenance department quit because of “B”.
Taking another dig at the mayor, Harris said, “If you’re not getting (the answers) you want, that’s a reflection of yourself,” and that his appointment has left Housing Authority residents feeling tortured and victims of a vendetta.
There is even talk about abolishing the Housing Authority and putting it under the city’s Redevelopment Program. Redevelopment programs exist for one main purpose: to raise property values.
Members of the Black community feel they are being gentrified, Harris said.
To illustrate the exclusive club that is the Housing Authority board, its meetings are on weekdays at 4:30 p.m., not conducive for working people to attend even online, she said.
One person who recently tried to participate in the Zoom meeting could not be heard.
Outlaw said he wants “to be a partner with them, not take it over, and work toward safe, affordable housing in New Bern. Work with me toward that.”
He said the school principal, retired police officer, a resident member, and others on the board are appointed to address different concerns.
Harris asked, what are “B’s” qualifications?
Outlaw did not respond.
And then there’s Alderman Bengel
Meanwhile, Alderman Bengel rose to the defense of “B’s” appointment, with which she said she had no involvement.
“It was totally the Mayor’s call,” Bengel told the Post on Wednesday.
Did she oppose the appointment?
“It didn’t matter. I couldn’t undo it because it was already done when I found out. So I decided to just see what would happen.
“‘B’ asked the questions no one else would, demanded answers that if I was a board member, I certainly would have asked.
“I have not been satisfied with the housing authority for some time because I think it lacks leadership,” Bengel said.
Her dissatisfaction with the Housing Authority dates back at least to Hurricane Florence in September 2018, when Housing Authority management essentially abandoned the residents during and after the storm.
Bengel said there are 28 empty units and there is no demolition plan for buildings damaged by Hurricane Florence.
Bengel said she was also dissatisfied with what she has been seeing at the meetings.
There had been telephone and Zoom meetings in which citizens could not participate.
At her urging, and the minutes reflect this, the next meeting will be at the Jasper Hayes Omega Center.
But Bengel is not a member of the board. She attends because Housing Authority properties are in her ward. She cannot vote and can only speak at meetings when the public can speak.
Said Bengel, “These people that live, these citizens of ours who live in Trent Court and in the Towers deserve our very best and I feel they’re not getting it because we don’t have a hand on the board. … We don’t own the property. … We don’t have any ability to change the results.”
Bengel: Actions speak louder than words, and “B” has been asking the questions that need to be asked.
Bengel said she received no phone calls about “B’s” appointment.
Harris explained that she gets calls because Bengel’s relationship “with that community is kind of …,” trailing off without finishing.
Bengel said she is responsive and does whatever is asked of her.
“People reach out to people they feel comfortable with,” Bengel replied. “There’s people in your ward who reach out to me because they don’t know you.”
So, how does someone appointed to the board get removed? Harris wondered aloud.
The mayor could file a charge against said person, said City Attorney Scott Davis, then have a public hearing to decide whether he should be fired.
As Harris said earlier, obviously, that’s not going to happen.