Alderman Sabrina Bengel takes the oath of office after being selected mayor pro tem. Alderman Jeff Odham is in the background. The two sit on opposite sides of the dais and, judging from their first meeting Tuesday, are on opposite sides of other things, too.
Former New Bern mayor Lee Bettis will have his name restored to a fire truck the Board of Aldermen authorized to buy during his last meeting as mayor but the subsequent board ordered removed because he was convicted of crimes.
Ward 1 Alderman Sabrina Bengel, using the New Business portion of the meeting that she has complained about on her weekly radio program, made a motion to restore Bettis’ name to the 2014 Sutphen Quint aerial ladder fire truck. Ward 2 Alderman Jameesha Harris seconded the motion, and it passed on a 4-2 vote, with one “undecided.”
Ward 3 Alderman also Bobby Aster and Ward 5 Alderman Barbara Best voted for Bengel’s motion. Mayor Dana Outlaw and Ward 6 Alderman Jeff Odham voted against it. Ward 4 Alderman Johnnie Ray Kinsey said he was undecided.
The decision was among the least important but easily most controversial during the new board’s first meeting for newly elected aldermen Bengel, Harris, Aster, and Best.
Outlaw, Odham, and Kinsey were among the six board members who voted to remove Bettis’ name in October 2014 on Odham’s motion.
“I don’t think there is any need to go into any great detail — anyone who has been watching the news lately knows about the unfortunate events of our past mayor,” Odham was quoted at the time in the Sun Journal newspaper. “…When I think about this vehicle attending great community functions and, most importantly, schools, I don’t think it is appropriate, considering the circumstances, that (the fire truck) bear the name of the former mayor.”
Bettis was taking medication for a hip replacement when he was arrested May 6, 2013.
A Breathalyzer test administered to Bettis was negative, but a blood test found traces of Xanax, a prescription drug used to treat anxiety and panic disorder. Bettis was on his way to work and taking his stepchildren to school when he was stopped by Havelock police after being observed by other motorists driving erratically.
Bettis was charged with DWI, reckless driving and misdemeanor child abuse. On Oct. 15, 2013, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail. He was serving his jail sentence when the board voted to remove his name from the $800,000 ladder truck.
Aster, a retired New Bern fire chief who also plays a key volunteer role in the New Bern Firemen’s Museum, said New Bern has a 150-plus-year tradition of putting the names of mayors on fire engines acquired during their terms. The ladder truck that once bore Bettis’ name is the only truck in New Bern, either on active duty with the Fire Department or on display at the museum, that does not bear a mayor’s name.
“It’s all about tradition,” Aster said. “It’s only right that we put it back.”
Outlaw blamed Aster for the controversy in the first place, saying Aster ordered the truck to include Bettis’ name from the factory without Board of Aldermen approval. Outlaw said decisions like that should be based on formal policies, and that the city ought to develop a formal policy on whether and how to name city fire trucks.
He said some cities sell the naming rights to fire trucks.
Aster replied that there likely is a written policy regarding naming fire trucks, but at any rate it was not an action that required Board of Aldermen approval in the past. Plus, he added, “I don’t think the city is ready for a Bojangles fire truck.”
Alderman Odham rehashed his original arguments for removing Bettis’ name, and said traditions change.
“Unfortunately, we’re simply going back to the way it used to be,” he said.
Later, after the vote and during his own time during New Business, Odham said Bengel’s move was out of line and ironic, considering her previous opposition as a radio host to aldermen making binding decisions during the New Business portion of the meetings.
Meanwhile, Bettis, in a video posted to Facebook on Wednesday morning, said:
“Truly from the bottom of my heart … thank you very much for putting my name back on the fire truck. Not that it was a huge deal but it was symbolic for the city of New Bern for the first vote that they took for four aldermen to stand up and say hey we’re putting an end for Mr. Outlaw’s and Mr. Odham’s era of hate and politics by bullying. They are four strong, independent aldermen, and that’s what this city needs.
“The group-think that has prevailed over the past four years is over.”
Bengel and Bettis host a radio program called CityTalk that focuses heavily on City Hall and what the Board of Aldermen do or don’t do. The two started the program shortly after they left office in 2013, Bengel as a former alderman who ran unsuccessfully for mayor, and Bettis, who did not run for reelection for mayor.
The squabble followed an otherwise stately couple of Tuesday meetings, the first involving the old board with its four out-going aldermen (Dallas Blackiston, Victor Taylor, E.T. Mitchell, and Bernard White), then a swearing-in ceremony that included state dignitaries, followed by a robust but uncontroversial second meeting that included the new members.
But the rivalry between Bengel and Outlaw kindled when the two ran for mayor in 2013, well, apparently that’s still a thing. And with Bengel leading the charge, all the new board members voted one way, with all the incumbents voting the other.