“I hate rude behavior in a man, won’t tolerate it.”
– Captain Woodrow F. Call, Texas Ranger
I may have a slightly higher tolerance for rude behavior in a man than Captain Call, but what I will not tolerate is government attempting to suppress political speech or intimidate citizens. Gerry Vincent, the current interim town manager and former longtime assistant town manager in Huntersville, engaged in both this week when he tried to bar me from entering the meeting chamber in town hall shortly before 10am on Tuesday, June 20.
I was at town hall that day to sit in on a presentation by Health & Sports Works, the current company managing HFFA, as part of the ongoing bid process for future management of HFFA. The presentation was being made in the meeting chamber in town hall during normal business hours and Commissioners Boone, Gibbons, and Phillips and town staff Vincent, finance director Jackie Huffman, and Parks and Rec director Michael Jaycocks were present. Upon entering town hall, I stopped in the restroom and when I came out Mr. Vincent was standing in front of the closed doors of the meeting chamber. He had been informed of my plans to attend the day before.
We exchanged pleasantries and he then informed me that he couldn’t let me in the meeting chamber. I immediately opened my notebook and took out my pen and asked for the specific basis on which I was being denied entry to a public meeting in town hall and Mr. Vincent initially claimed it was a closed meeting, not an open or public meeting, since there was no quorum because only three commissioners were there. [Of course, Mr. Vincent is fully aware that the entire point of limiting these bid review committees to three commissioners was to avoid quorum and open meeting laws to begin with.] Knowing this explanation was garbage, I reminded him this was a public building and not having a quorum doesn’t mean a meeting is closed. He then tried the non sequitur that all types of staff meetings are held in town hall that aren’t open to the public, to which I pointed out this wasn’t a staff meeting. Finally, he tried the imaginary legal argument that I couldn’t enter the meeting chamber because neither I nor anyone else had attended the first presentation of one of the other companies bidding for the management contract so it wasn’t fair if someone attended HSW’s presentation. I asked him if anyone had requested or attempted to attend the prior vendor meeting and he admitted none had, so I questioned what that had to do with me attempting to attend this meeting and he again conceded defeat. After conceding defeat, he finally acknowledged he couldn’t keep me from attending this meeting, but made sure to inform me I could not ask any questions (I had no intention of asking questions, just taking copious notes.).
The really sad part about this incident is that Mr. Vincent put on his big boy pants Tuesday morning fully intending to stop a citizen from attending a public meeting in town hall without any legal basis and he still couldn’t come up with anything better than the excuses above. And some members of town board are seriously considering elevating him to the full-time town manager position. To any board members who vote to make Mr. Vincent the full-time town manager you’re now on notice – vote for him and you’re voting to condone government intimidation.
Later that same day I saw Mayor John Aneralla’s announcement of his intention to run for re-election. As one of the “accomplishments” of the town board under his leadership, he cited “bringing a new level of transparency and accountability to town government.” I decided to take my concerns about Mr. Vincent’s blatant abuse of power, along with concerns that the town is violating open meetings laws related to closed sessions (more to come on this, records request is pending), directly to Mr. Aneralla instead of just firing off a blog post since both issues are related to transparency in town government. I called him around 3:30pm and the call only lasted approx. four minutes. His response can only be described as arrogant (well maybe also as dismissive, condescending, and/or contemptuous…), but an arrogance above and beyond even that special kind of arrogance unique to politicians.
I first voiced my concerns to the mayor about the town’s potential violations of NCGS 143-318.11(c) whenever they enter into closed session. Under his leadership, the town board has entered into closed sessions ten times over the past 12 months. In only one of those closed sessions, on March 20, 2017, is it possible to verify that the closed session was called pursuant to the statute. Mr. Aneralla asked me why I thought I had the right to closed session minutes dealing with personnel matters – clearly not grasping the procedural issue I was raising about closed sessions – and told me to just trust him that the proper records are being kept. I think Ronald Reagan would agree that “Trust me, I’m the mayor, records are being kept” ranks right up there with Reagan’s other nine most terrifying words in the English language. I guess it’s possible I simply misunderstood the mayor and he was actually just testing out his new campaign slogan, “Stop asking so many questions and just take my word for it.”
I then proceeded to describe the incident with Mr. Vincent and he curtly responded by asking why I thought I was entitled to sit in on a vendor meeting? At that point, I apologized for bothering him with such trivial issues and told him I would not do so again in the future since it was clear we were going to have to agree to disagree about transparency in Huntersville.
Maybe he saw one too many “May It Please the Crown” memes on social media and started to take them literally.
I could almost understand his response if I had called to offer him advice on, say, asset management. But, I called to discuss one of the few areas I know a little something about and one of the areas he is basing his re-election on, transparency and open meetings laws. Exactly how Mr. Aneralla has brought a new level of transparency to town government has yet to be explained, especially considering live streaming the meetings wasn’t even his idea; although he did apparently come up with those riveting board meeting recap videos on social media all on his own.
It’s hard to understand exactly what a two-time political loser who was finally able to get elected facing an unpopular incumbent and while riding the coattails of the anti-toll candidates has to be arrogant about. For those who don’t recall, Mr. Aneralla lost the district 40 state senate race in 2010 and then lost in the primary of the 2012 district 41 state senate race to Jeff Tarte in a 5-way race. It’s interesting that despite living in Huntersville for the last 20 years according to his re-election announcement, it took him around 18 years to show any interest in Huntersville politics. It’s almost as if he settled for running for mayor in Huntersville after failing twice to get elected to the state senate. And let’s be honest, if Jim Puckett had run for mayor again in 2015 he would have won by a far larger margin than Mr. Aneralla. (Puckett lost to Jill Swain by a mere 32 votes in the 2013 mayoral contest.)
Mr. Aneralla’s response to the Vincent incident is even more absurd when you consider the mayor is the one who formed an ad hoc oversight committee for HFFA (which only came to light when it was reported in the Herald Weekly after remarks the mayor made at a Huntersville 101 alumni meeting), but then gets mad when a citizen actually attempts to engage in oversight of HFFA. The mayor was just as curt in June 2016 when I asked questions about this new ad hoc committee – but, to his credit, Commissioner Boone, one of the committee members, had no problem in providing me his notes and the agendas from the HFFA oversight committee meetings upon request. Might I suggest that if more citizens in Huntersville had attended “vendor meetings” about HFFA in the past, it might not have taken so long to put the management contract out for bid in the first place?
If Mr. Aneralla’s cavalier attitude towards government intimidation isn’t enough of a reason to not support his re-election effort, let’s just look at his record on fiscal responsibility. He has failed to reduce the tax burden on Huntersville taxpayers for two consecutive budgets. Last year, he was the tie-breaking vote against a budget that would have lowered the tax rate by 5/8 of a cent. When the mayor voted against lower taxes last year he said we just need another year to work towards the goal of lower taxes and that it would be his goal to cut the tax rate over the course of the next year. Well it’s next year and the budget this year did not reduce the tax rate yet again.
What difference does it make if you can point to a long list of spending cuts if none of it resulted in a lower tax burden? A large percentage of the spending cuts for mileage/travel/dues that Mr. Aneralla is touting were no-brainers related to the jetsetting of the prior mayor for trips to San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Indianapolis. But, again, why did these cuts not result in a lower tax burden? One of the few good ideas he did come up with, pushing to redirect CATS spending to transportation infrastructure in Huntersville and away from more studies, is hard to see as anything more than political pandering when he has yet to display the same vigor when it comes to our town budget.
This isn’t to say everything the mayor has done in the past year and a half has been bad, but open meetings and government transparency are particularly important to me so it’s tough to overcome his statements and inaction on these issues.
If people in town can get worked up over the color some members of town staff want to paint an old caboose, maybe a few people can also find the energy to get worked up over attempts to suppress political speech and intimidate citizens from participating in local government. If enough people demand a change in the attitude at town hall, maybe it would even convince a true conservative to run for mayor in Huntersville – I mean the filing fee is only $10. Anyone know someone who fits this description in Huntersville? If so, I bet we could find a way to raise the funds to cover that filing fee…