Resignations plague Downtown Waynesville Association board
Updated at 10 a.m. Sept. 15: The Waynesville Board of Alderman voted unanimously at Tuesday night's meeting for the town to take over management of the Municipal Service District due to the resignation of Downtown Waynesville Association executive board members.
A handful of the Downtown Waynesville Association’s executive board members have recently resigned, leaving the organization without the leadership needed to pursue a contract renewal to manage the town’s Municipal Service District.
DWA Chairwoman Carolyn Brunk, owner of Oak Park Inn, resigned a couple of weeks ago, leaving Vice Chairman Jonathan Key, publisher of The Mountaineer, at the helm. However, Key also turned in his resignation on Monday, Sept. 13, stating that he had personal and professional commitments that did not afford him the time necessary to effectively participate in the organization.
“We are all aware that the process of applying for the Waynesville MSD contract has become much more complicated than anyone could have foreseen,” Key wrote in his resignation letter.
The DWA was founded in 1985 and has since administered the town’s Municipal Service District (MSD), which is funded largely through an additional property tax levied on properties in the district. That money is used to pay for an executive director for the DWA, which has led marketing efforts for the downtown since its inception. When the DWA’s contract came up for renewal this year, the Waynesville Board of Aldermen pressed the organization for more transparency and a strategic plan moving forward.
The DWA submitted its proposal for the MSD contract back in June, but aldermen were not satisfied with the document and gave the DWA board 90 days to resubmit the proposal.
“They submitted a proposal that was fraught with errors and issues,” said Alderman Anthony Sutton, adding that the DWA still hadn’t been able to provide him with the last five years of board and committee meeting minutes as he had requested months ago. “We gave them guidelines of what to do moving forward and they have been in communication with the N.C. Main Street Program and still haven’t followed the basic guidelines. I think everyone is passionate about the organization, but I don’t think there’s a commitment to the organization right now.”
Joey Fuseler, manager of Mast General Store, resigned from the executive board on Sept. 10.
“As I am part-owner and general manager of a business in the Municipal Service District, I was excited to be a part of the proposed restructuring and future success of the organization as well as downtown Waynesville,” he said. “After today’s meeting, it has become clear to me that there are some deeper issues that need to be discussed before a future can be forecasted and I believe that those are just out of my wheelhouse. That, coupled with the busiest retail quarter of the year being ahead of us has solidified this decision for me.”
Fuseler was referring to a Sept. 9 DWA board meeting, which was not properly noticed, according to North Carolina’s public meeting laws. State statute requires that a change to a public body’s meeting schedule has to be published online and noticed to the media,” but that didn’t happen before the DWA convened on Sept. 9.
Alderman Sutton showed up Sept. 9 to inform the board members that the meeting would be considered illegal since it wasn’t properly noticed to the public.
Morgan Beryl, the new director of the Haywood County Arts Council, also resigned from the DWA board after expressing frustration during the Sept. 9 meeting. In an email to the rest of the board, Beryl said she felt like the Town of Waynesville didn’t want the DWA to succeed.
“I didn’t feel that the town was supporting or being a partner in the process,” said Beryl during a follow-up interview. “I am very committed to my other board members and helping to preserve the economic vitality and the character of downtown Waynesville. It’s one of the main reasons I moved here and I have passion around working with good teams and doing something that I really feel benefits our community.”
Over the course of the first month of the 90-day period, Beryl said board members on the DWA had come up with five points of focus moving forward. These points included a budget overhaul, a strong finish to the year’s upcoming events, updating bylaws and changing leadership, communicating with downtown merchants to understand their needs and coming up with a scope and timeline for an updated strategic plan. Four committees had been formed to tackle each point, with one committee dealing with both budget overhaul and updating bylaws.
With such a heavy workload and so much in transition with board members and no official director on staff, Beryl said she reached out for assistance from town officials to ensure the board was following public notice requirements for meetings.
“Instead, no help was provided, and today we were told that it is not his job .... It is my belief this is a failure on the part of the Town as a public servant and was done in poor faith,” she wrote. “At our meeting this morning, which was not held due to the noticing issue, it felt as though the Town of Waynesville wanted this group of volunteers, giving their time to try to help improve an organization that has served the community for over 30 years, to fail. If DWA and the Town are not working together to serve the MSD, to support the historic preservation of the downtown, and create a collaborative community, then that is not something that deserves my or any of my fellow board members’ time and attention.”
At the Sept. 9 meeting, DWA members questioned who was normally responsible for the public meeting notices.
Town Manager Rob Hites said it would be up to the chairman, vice chair or paid staff of the DWA to publish the meeting notices. He added that this wasn’t the first time the DWA struggled with noticing their meetings.
“It’s extremely simple. It doesn’t take long and there’s a meeting list to send it out to called a sunshine list,” Hites told DWA members. “I’ve been telling Buffy (Phillips) for years ‘you’re not doing this right.’ You have to remember that the DWA is not part of the city, but you are responsible for open meetings law because you’re managing the municipal service district and that’s been the case for 20 years.”
If the DWA board meetings haven’t been noticed properly for a while, Beryl asked why it was just now becoming an issue.
“Is it possible for us to move forward with the understanding that this has to be done every time?” she asked.
Sutton reaffirmed that the board could not legally hold a meeting that day and needed to reschedule it for the following week.
“I think it feels a little bit like a set up,” said long-time DWA board member Teresa Pennington, who was formerly a chairman of the DWA board.
“We’re under hyper-scrutiny right now and that’s OK,” said Haywood County Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, who also serves on the DWA board. “We have to abide by those rules now.”
In a follow-up interview, Sutton said the DWA board did reach out for guidance on the open meeting laws, and that Hites sent the board an email Aug. 31 with the specific meeting notice requirements.
“It’s not the town’s responsibility nor Rob’s responsibility to make sure the notice went out,” he said. “They have been notified on multiple occasions by Rob that they need to adhere to the policies.”
As for the comments made about the Sept. 9 meeting feeling like a set-up, Sutton said the DWA has been given ample support from the town and was given ample time to resubmit their MSD contract proposal.
To demonstrate that the DWA wasn’t being singled out, Hites gave members an example of the town missing the meeting notice requirements and how it was handled. When notice of a Board of Alderman retreat meeting was sent out at 3:30 p.m. for an 8:30 a.m. meeting, the town barely missed the 48-hour requirement.
“So we had to cancel it because The Smoky Mountain News raised an objection under the open meetings law, and they were right,” he said.
At this point, Sutton said he thinks bringing the MSD management under the guidance of the town government is the best option moving forward. He said he planned to bring the issue up before the Board of Aldermen at its Tuesday night meeting (Sept. 14).
“The town can’t dissolve the Downtown Waynesville Association. It can continue to operate but it won’t receive the district funds if we don’t renew the contract,” he said. “I think bringing the management under the town is absolutely the best route right now.”
If the town decides to manage the MSD instead of offering the DWA the contract, Sutton said a Downtown Waynesville Committee would be formed similar to the Green Hill Cemetery Committee or the Historic Preservation Committee. The aldermen would make appointments to the committee and that committee would oversee the MSD tax revenue.
Key also stated in his resignation letter that he agreed with Sutton’s suggestion of creating a “quasi-public” Downtown Waynesville Committee.
“It is the most common format adopted by most of the downtown associations in North Carolina and it would solve the issue we have with hiring and providing competitive pay and benefits for an experienced Executive Director,” he wrote.
Beryl agreed that she could see a lot of benefit for the Main Street Program to be under the auspices of the town.
“If in the end they want to bring the Main Street Program into the town, then I think they should do that. And move ahead in that direction. I’m not getting a clear message from the town about what direction they want. I’m willing to work really hard and be a good team member and bring my skills to bear in a positive team-oriented environment,” Beryl said.
Hannah McLeod contributed to this report.