Melinda Bales Reaffirms Her Commitment to Being Wrong About HFFA

Dr. Jake Houseman: I know you weren’t the one who got Penny in trouble.

Johnny Castle: Yeah.

Dr. Jake Houseman: When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.

– 1987 Best Picture Winner: Dirty Dancing

Everyone loves a sincere apology because everyone can relate to being wrong. Everyone except politicians. Even when they lose an election it’s always the voters who were wrong, never them. Politicians in Huntersville are no exception.

Near the end of Monday night’s four-hour long town board meeting, Commissioner Melinda Bales took yet another opportunity to be completely wrong about an issue related to Swim Club Management Group (“SCMG”), the current management company at the Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics facility (“HFFA”). This time it was about whether Section 7.(e)(5) of the current management contract between the town and SCMG requires Town Board approval of all sponsorship agreements. Her comments at the meeting [3:53:00 mark] were related to Item 8.B. on the agenda – Approve sponsorship agreement with Atrium Health – and were made in an exchange with Zach Brown, the Executive Director at HFFA.

[Bales] “Since we really hadn’t heard about it (the sponsorship deal) prior to it being put on the agenda, can you elaborate for us how we got here since our contract with SCMG states that sponsorships get the approval with the Board and this contract (the sponsorship deal with Atrium Health) has already been signed? So, this is kind of rubber stamping it. Again, I have no complaints about the agreement, I just want to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again and that we are working in concert with one another.”

Mr. Brown then advised Commissioner Bales that SCMG had, in fact, reviewed the proposed sponsorship agreement with both the town attorney AND town staff prior to it being signed. Only at this point does it appear to dawn on Commissioner Bales that she was wrong about the sponsorship agreement needing Town Board approval.

The relevant language in the management contract states, “All sponsorship agreement [sic] shall be approved by the Town…” The contract was signed by the CEO of SCMG, a prior town manager, our town’s CFO, and the prior town attorney. No one on the town board at the time was a signatory to the contract. Instead of taking five minutes to discuss Section 7.(e)(5) of the contract before the meeting with our full-time town attorney, Commissioner Bales thought she had a “gotcha” moment ready for the large crowd in attendance.

We should expect more from our Mayor Pro Tem.

Commissioner Bales has been opposed to SCMG since the beginning. She opposed even putting the HFFA management contract out for bid in October 2015 and she voted against awarding the management contract to SCMG in July 2017. She even went line by line through part of HFFA’s budget projections during the May 14, 2018 budget workshop in an effort to find some evidence of wrongdoing when she never went through that level of budget detail with the prior management company. She can’t afford for SCMG to continue to succeed at HFFA because it means she was wrong. And she can’t admit she was wrong.

The same Commissioner Bales who publicly made unfounded assertions of collusion against SCMG during a board meeting and has STILL never apologized for those assertions had the audacity at Monday night’s meeting to complain that she wasn’t involved in the sponsorship agreement negotiations. She had absolutely no role in bringing about this great deal for the town, but she expects SCMG to share details with her about confidential negotiations simply because she has the made-up title of HFFA “liaison?” Commissioners do not know everything that goes on in town hall – we have a professional town manager and town staff to handle the majority of the day to day operations of the town. Commissioner Bales also didn’t know about a former town board member screwing taxpayers out of over $90K while she was on the board until it was reported by a local wannabe journalist, but I don’t seem to recall her ever once complaining about this gap in her knowledge during a town board meeting.

All of us make mistakes, but most of us apologize, learn from our mistakes, and move on. It’s clear by now that Commissioner Bales will never admit she was wrong to oppose a change at HFFA, which means she doesn’t want to learn from her mistake. It’s time Huntersville moved on from this type of petty behavior. We should expect more from our representatives on the Town Board.

Eric

New Management Finally Running HFFA Like Actual Business

After yet another legitimate business-like decision, residents and Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics (“HFFA”) members are convinced the new management team is serious about running the business like an actual business for the first time since it opened over 15 years ago. A new title sponsorship deal at HFFA with Atrium Health was announced last Friday worth far more than the title sponsorship deal with the prior sponsor. This came about thanks to Swim Club Management Group (“SCMG”) engaging in what’s known in the business world as “negotiating.” A three-year deal with Atrium Health worth $65K a year plus other value-added offerings to HFFA members not currently available is a great deal for HFFA members and Huntersville taxpayers. And this on top of the recent news that HFFA actually posted a $102K revenue GAIN from July-October 2018 compared with a $117K revenue LOSS during the same period in 2017!

So why do I get the feeling not everyone in town was excited to hear the positive news last Friday night?

When the new management team, SCMG, was awarded the bid at the July 11, 2017 town board meeting after a long overdue competitive bid process, many people in town were skeptical of all their fancy promises about working to improve the existing contracts they had inherited, listening to what their customers wanted, and requiring members to actually pay their dues every month. Two town board members at the time, Melinda Bales and Rob Kidwell, even voted against the management change because they preferred the prior management team’s business model of losing money every year but hoping the public never noticed. Long time readers will also recall Commissioner Bales made unfounded assertions of collusion against SCMG during that July 11, 2017 meeting that she has still never apologized for.

If there’s one area in which SCMG could improve it’s in the self-promotion department. The bottom line usually speaks for itself in the business world, but SCMG chose to get involved in the political world when it took on the HFFA management contract. In the political world it’s who benefits that matters more than the bottom line. The news about the new title sponsorship deal prompted me to finish this article that I had been meaning to finish ever since hearing SCMG give their presentation to the town board back on Nov. 19, 2018 – because not enough people have heard the good news about what SCMG is doing at HFFA in just their first year of full-time management. (I would encourage you to watch the presentation for yourself beginning at the 28:30 mark here.)

Residents who there during SCMG’s presentation to the town board on Nov. 19 heard Zach Brown, the HFFA manager, and local marketing expert Peter Laatz detail some of the positive news like customer satisfaction rates being up and a dramatically improved NPS score. The board also heard from Brian Sheehan, SCMG CEO, who went through some of the financial facts and figures showing the much-improved financial situation at HFFA in just one year. You can download the slideshow presentations yourself below until I figure out how to add slideshows to this site.

The only question residents and HFFA members should be asking is why didn’t a prior town board make this management change sooner?

Current Mayor pro tem Melinda Bales has been consistently opposed to putting the HFFA management contract out for bid. She opposed a competitive bid process in October 2015, the last time the contract was up for renewal, along with commissioners Ron Julian, Sarah McAulay, and Jeff Neely and the prior mayor. Former two-term commissioner, Rob Kidwell, who has been very open about his intentions to run for mayor this year (for those who don’t know, 2019 is an election year in Huntersville), did vote against the contract renewal back in October 2015 when it didn’t matter – he knew he could safely vote no because the votes weren’t there for putting the contract out for a competitive bid. Coincidentally enough, many of the same people who were in favor of maintaining the status quo at HFFA back in October 2015 and July 2017 are now supporting the unofficial Kidwell for Mayor campaign.

Neither Commissioner Bales nor Mr. Kidwell has publicly acknowledged the success that SCMG is having at HFFA since they were awarded the management contract in July 2017. They can’t afford to admit they voted the wrong way. Commissioner Bales had nothing to say during the recent Nov. 19 HFFA presentation and neither of them has had anything to say yet about the great new sponsorship deal with Atrium Health. Their silence on the success at HFFA speaks volumes

Huntersville taxpayers can’t afford to revisit the failures of the past now that progress is finally being made at HFFA thanks to SCMG. Just something to keep in mind as the 2019 election season gets rolling in a few months.

Eric

Huntersville Board Agenda – Jan. 22, 2019

Full agenda packet for tomorrow night’s town board meeting can be found here. The regular meeting begins at 6:30, pre-meeting starts at 5:45. Plan on watching it via FB live again this week due to work still being done to implement the town’s new A/V system (work on the new system has started at least).

The agenda packet is only 26 pages so this should be a short meeting, only two items on the consent agenda. One public hearing called for next month on allowing golf driving ranges in rural districts and approval of an easement agreement with Verizon.

The most interesting item will be during the pre-meeting when the newly formed “Public Arts Commission” intends to ask for $10K in public funding. If you’ll recall, this group was created by a 3-2 vote (Commissioners Boone and Phillips opposed, Commissioner Gibbons absent) at the March 19, 2018 town board meeting. According to the draft minutes from their Jan. 9, 2019 meeting – the Arts Commission’s chair, Scott Mumma, intends to ask the board for $10K in the FY19/20 Budget, $5K to be used to seek matching grants and $5K for “membership costs” to be paid to at least two art affiliated organizations outside of Huntersville. Less than a year old and already wanting taxpayers to give them $10K… thanks, Commissioners Bales, Hines, and Walsh! Remember, government only grows in one direction.

Eric

Chief’s Departure Signals Positive Opportunity For HPD

After almost five years on the job, Huntersville Police Department Chief Cleveland Spruill provided his resignation to the town last Friday, December 14. He started with HPD in May 2014 after a long career in law enforcement that began in 1987. People immediately started asking why the seemingly sudden resignation, but rumors of the chief’s potential departure have been circulating for weeks now, especially over at HPD HQ. Another rumor that I still haven’t been able to confirm yet is that the town is considering giving Chief Spruill the Bearcat as a retirement present.

In case you’re worried about how the chief is going to pay the bills, don’t. He’ll likely be receiving his Special Separation Allowance (“SSA”) courtesy of Huntersville taxpayers once his retirement is official next month. What is the SSA you’re probably asking? Just a special benefit provided to eligible retired law enforcement in NC to see them through to social security eligibility when they reach the age of 62. Huntersville taxpayers are currently paying for this benefit for two other individuals.

So why does the chief’s departure signal a positive opportunity for HPD? Because the town now has a great opportunity to finally fix the morale problems that have been plaguing the department for years now, even before Chief Spruill was named chief. As I’ve already pointed out, low pay isn’t what’s wrong at HPD if you talk to the rank and file officers. And it appears the town has finally decided to do something about the real problems at HPD by naming an interim chief from outside the ranks of the current HPD leadership. The same problems I’ve written about before still apparently exist at HPD (abuse of surveillance equipment, abuse of the take home vehicle policy, abuse of overtime, etc.) so Interim Chief Bence Hoyle is going to have his hands full when he takes over in early January.

Sources within HPD have been reaching out to me since the news of Chief Spruill’s resignation last week to share some thoughts. No officer is still willing to speak on the record for fear of retaliation – which is justified since from what I hear command staff has been doing everything they can to find out who all is talking to me.

Regarding the breaking news last week – one source stated, “Most of us were jumping for joy when the news was made official. Now a few more in leadership need to be next on the chopping block.”

Regarding the next chief – the same source stated, “The worst possible mistake would be to just promote from within the current leadership ranks. The town needs to cut ties with most of the ranking command staff and maybe even demote or fire some of the lieutenants.”

Regarding Spruill’s time as chief – another source stated, “When Spruill came in, things temporarily improved, but he allowed command staff too much control so the problems under Potter continued. Spruill eventually seemed to disconnect from the department and many rank and file officers for unknown reasons. He let too many in command just tell him what he wanted to hear, while those same command staff undermined him behind his back as if they wanted to set him up for failure. These same people will now do whatever it takes to protect themselves when the interim chief starts in January.”

Here’s a suggestion for the incoming interim chief – instead of wasting time trying to find out who all is talking to me, why not spend time attempting to fix what’s wrong with the department and then no one will have a reason to talk to me. Might I suggest something easy like an anonymous, legitimate survey amongst all the officers as a start to get some honest feedback? For example, feedback like this from another source about HPD HQ being used like a free afterschool daycare. “How is it fair that Major Graham, who makes over $100K, has his kid dropped off at HQ in the afternoons after school and is allowed to hang out for 2-3 hours and run all over the place? If this kid gets hurt at HQ who is responsible? What if a criminal gets loose or if a major call comes in – who is going to babysit the kid while we’re all responding to the call?”

How is that fair, indeed. When leadership gets to play by different rules, whether at HPD or any other company/organization, we all know what effect that has on morale.

The town has a great opportunity to finally fix some of the problems at HPD when the interim chief starts in a few short days. And the town manager is going to have a very important decision to make when it comes to naming a full-time replacement for Chief Spruill in the next few months. Let’s hope we keep moving Huntersville in the right direction with a chief who will finally hold all officers to the same standards and require command staff to be accountable for their actions and the actions of their subordinates.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Huntersville.

Eric

Smile, Huntersville, HPD Is Watching You

Digital video cameras, covert audio recording systems, pole camera systems, cell phone surveillance systems, license plate readers, and GPS trackers. And this is just the surveillance equipment we know about. Why does the Huntersville Police Department need all of this surveillance equipment and who are they tracking with it? Is HPD violating our civil liberties? Is HPD using GPS trackers in violation of the law to circumvent the warrant process? Let’s hope not since the law is pretty clear on this being a super no-no. If you’ve ever been pulled over by HPD on questionable grounds and you’d like to share your story, feel free to reach out, your privacy will be protected.

[Six (6) page document below. You can click through the pages by using the arrows at the bottom of the document.]

HPD surveillance response

Where is the town board on this issue? Who is providing oversight on all of this surveillance? What data is HPD collecting on residents? Who are they sharing this data with? Why is the town board not concerned about the potential for abuse this stockpile of surveillance equipment poses? What good is all this surveillance equipment if the town can’t even keep Public Works equipment from getting stolen (twice this year already!)? Why is HPD sitting on over $600K in asset forfeiture funds as of May? The town board should be demanding answers from HPD at Monday night’s town board meeting about all of this surveillance equipment, but they won’t. And the unsupervised surveillance of Huntersville residents, any anyone who travels through Huntersville, will continue…

But hey, if you don’t have anything to hide you shouldn’t be worried about HPD watching you, right?

Eric

Problems Persist At HPD Despite Pay Raises

I questioned months ago whether low pay and pay disparities were the only reasons officers were leaving or thinking about leaving the Huntersville Police Department (“HPD”). Spoiler alert – they aren’t. Low morale is another major problem within the department. And while the salary issue may have been addressed by the town board, our elected officials have been woefully inept at addressing the well-known issues at HPD causing low morale. The morale situation has become so bad at HPD that sources within the department have reached out to me for assistance even though they know they are risking their jobs by doing so. No officer has been willing to speak on the record at this time for fear of retaliation.

So, what are some of the issues affecting morale at HPD according to these sources? For starters: high ranking officers circumventing the 911 system to hide their personal problems, family members of high ranking officers being given preferential treatment after being lawfully stopped by HPD, rental vehicles supposedly needed for investigations being used like personal vehicles, officers abusing the secondary employment policy by getting paid for outside work while on the clock at HPD, EEOC complaints being filed, and just all around wasteful spending on things within the department that don’t make the community any safer. I’ve submitted multiple records requests related to a number of these items over the past week and plan to continue to investigate since the town board is unwilling to do any investigation of their own. I guess you could say I’m only taking the banal advice from the dais to say something if I see something…

Another source of ongoing contention is the abuse of the take home vehicle policy. This abuse has clearly continued with the tacit approval of the town board despite my reporting on the problems with the policy earlier this year (remember those $1,000 SSPBA contributions? I ‘member…). The current take home vehicle policy is not only costing taxpayers potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, it also continues to be used as a reward for favored officers even if they don’t qualify for a take home vehicle according to HPD’s own written policy. Officer T. Seth Hager continues to be allowed a take home vehicle paid for by Huntersville taxpayers for his 80+ mile round trip commute to work each day even though he has only worked a total of THREE (3) K9 deployments so far this year according to data from the KBCOPS system provided by a source within the department.

Where is the oversight from HPD command staff?

Finally, the issue of overtime pay. According to sources, the majority of overtime is going to higher ranking officers, primarily certain lieutenants. One source described the situation as follows, “Some lieutenants openly brag about all of their OT, but they’re not even the ones responding to road calls. Most days we have more officers sitting in the office than we do on the road and by 4pm it’s usually a ghost town at HQ.” [Huntersville PD HQ is located at 9630 Julian Clark Ave. in the business park.] With crime being so low in Huntersville it would seem odd that so much OT is required, especially if that OT is going to higher ranking officers sitting behind desks at HQ. “We just have way too many chiefs and not enough Indians, too many supervisors,” is the root of the problem according to one source. The top-heavy nature of the department is a problem the town board is very familiar with after having just sat through many hours of discussion about pay bands and pay raises. The frustration with the situation was obvious when another source explained that, “When you walk into HQ you can even see certain lieutenants watching Netflix or youtube on their computers so why do they need all that OT when they could just be spending time in the office during normal business hours actually doing their work?”

According to town staff, overtime pay is counted as compensation by the NC Local Governmental Employee’s Retirement System. Why does this matter? Because all NC taxpayers are on the hook for the massive $40 BILLION in unfunded liabilities for state retiree pension and health benefits. If only we had an elected official in Huntersville who supposedly understands pension issues and could help explain the consequences of pension padding to the other board members…

Where is the oversight from town hall?

When is the town finally going to require an independent audit of HPD?

What is it going to take for town hall to take some action, any action, to address these issues affecting morale with as much vigor as they addressed the issues of low pay and pay disparities?

There is more to come. I am currently waiting for responses to multiple records requests and will provide updates once more information is obtained. But, the worst part is what I’ve described above isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. You can only hide behind a hashtag for so long before the truth is revealed.

My offer still stands. If you have any thoughts you’d like to share about the problems within the department, feel free to reach out to me. Your privacy will be protected.

Eric

Local Freedom Hater Served Justice Sandwich

Hurricane Florence may be on her way towards our area, but Hurricane Justice already made landfall in Cornelius earlier this week and the Miltich residence was directly in its path. In case you weren’t aware, Mr. Michael F. Miltich, an elected member of the Cornelius Town Board, FREAKING SUED one of his constituents, Ms. Michelle Ferlauto, in July because he was super mad about some words she typed on the internets and because he hates America and Freedom and getting called out for being a liar liar with his pants on fire for lying about comments he was recorded making about Cornelius firefighters. I’ll link the actual lawsuit at the bottom of the page in case you want to show your kids what a frivolous suit looks like.

[IMPORTANT NOTE: PLEASE DON’T SUE ME TOO MR. MILTICH, THIS IS ALL JUST MY OPINION AND IS TOTALLY PROTECTED POLITICAL SPEECH CONCERNING A PUBLIC FIGURE (See U.S. CONST. am. 1.) BECAUSE IT’S STILL NOT ILLEGAL TO MAKE FUN OF POLITICIANS IN AMERICA.]

Thankfully for Ms. Ferlauto, the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice this week [see Dismissal below, along with copies of Ms. Ferlauto’s Answer, Motion to Dismiss, and Motion for Sanctions] due to the stellar legal work of local attorneys Jim Dedman of Gallivan, White & Boyd and Eric Spengler of Spengler & Agans. If you, too, have been sued by a butthurt elected official in your town for exercising your free political speech, or if you need assistance with any other legal issues, I would highly encourage you contact either of these fine members of the bar. If they hadn’t agreed to defend Ms. Ferlauto pro bono, the costs for her to defend this garbage lawsuit could have potentially been devastating. And the cowardly Mr. Miltich knew this, which is why he purposefully chose to sue only Ms. Ferlauto despite multiple other individuals and media outlets discussing/reporting his recorded comments about Cornelius firefighters, because he mistakenly thought she was an easy target and he could use a suit against her to score political points. I wouldn’t recommend you hold your breath waiting for Mr. Miltich to file a similar bogus lawsuit against any local media outlets or any other individuals.

Miltich Dismissal

Miltich Answer

To be clear, dismissed with prejudice means there was NO SETTLEMENT by Ms. Ferlauto. She didn’t have to delete any social media postings and she didn’t have to sign any non-disclosure agreement as demanded by Mr. Miltich. Seriously, he tried to get her to sign an NDA before he’d agree to drop his COMPLETELY FRIVOLOUS LAWSUIT. Instead, she simply stood her ground against a bully and punched him in the nose – figuratively speaking, of course – and he went crying back to his mommy JUST SIX DAYS after her attorneys filed a Motion to Dismiss and a Motion for Sanctions in their answer to the lawsuit. Unfortunately, two attorneys had to waste their valuable time in dealing with this frivolity and Ms. Ferlauto has had to deal with the stress of being sued ever since July – not an easy thing to deal with for most non-attorneys.

Why so many other local elected officials and local politicos are still being seen in photos on social media with Mr. Miltich even AFTER he attempted to silence the political speech of a constituent is beyond me.

The good folks in Cornelius deserve better. If Mr. Miltich was in possession of any decency he would resign immediately.

Eric

Miltich Suit