Former commissioner McDermott ejected from Polk meeting

Published 10:40 pm Thursday, September 11, 2014


by Leah Justice

Former Polk County Commissioner Renée McDermott was removed from the Polk County Board of Commissioner meeting on Monday, Sept. 8 after she said from the audience that commissioner vice-chair Michael Gage committed slander against her.

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Gage questioned closed session minutes from 2010 when McDermott and current commissioner Ray Gasperson were on the board.

“In the spirit of transparency I felt the need for citizens to be aware of any situation that may have arrived that they felt would be inappropriate for any elected official past or present,” said Gage. “Many of these citizens have questioned this board of commissioners for the manner in which we’ve held our closed sessions, especially whether we were operating within the confines of the law.”

Gage said recently the board unsealed three batches of closed session minutes. The closed session minutes from 2010 Gage was referring to were released to the Bulletin in May of this year.

The minutes that stirred the most controversy during Monday’s meeting and what sparked McDermott’s removal were from Jan. 25, 2010 regarding real and business personal property taxes and water and sewer charges Woodland Mills owed the county at the time.

Gage read the minutes, which said, “Mr. (Ryan) Whitson has had meetings with Woodland Mills. He reported they owe $95,000 in business personal taxes, $45,000 in real property and $25,000 in water and sewer bills. The board would be willing to settle for $100,000 if acceptable by the tax assessor. The bank will foreclose on the mill Jan. 29.”

Gage asked county attorney Jana Berg, according to the minutes, “What were the board’s intentions?”

Berg said based on the verbiage in the minutes, it would appear the board was willing to accept this proposal subject to the tax assessor’s approval.

“This essentially threw up all kinds of red flags to me as an attorney whose practiced in governmental law over 15 years,” Berg said.

Berg continued to review North Carolina statutes, where governing boards cannot reduce taxes or water/sewer bills and would even be personally financially liable if they compromised a particular taxpayer’s taxes.

“What concerns me is the intent,” Gage said. “As much grief as this board gets all the time for stuff, I mean this is right here. I mean, what else is there, that’s what I ask the citizens. This does concern me. Hopefully there’s nothing else out there.”

Gasperson said he found it unfortunate that the county is talking about Woodland Mills, who went through some difficult periods and they are current on their tax bill.

Secondly, Gasperson said, it’s important to note that no action was ever taken. It was just a discussion, he said. He said the county’s veteran attorney at the time was also in the room, who is there to keep commissioners out of legal trouble.

Gasperson went on to say there were likely discussions that weren’t included in the minutes because between 2004 and 2009, there were pieces of equipment at Woodland Mills that were taxed and discovered to not exist and adjustments to the business personal tax bill were made.

Gasperson said he’s spoken to tax administrator Melissa Bowlin, who said former tax assessor John Bridgers made adjustments to the bill and on July 8, 2010, Woodland Mills paid their tax bill in full of $101,085.28.

“That sure does hit pretty close to that $100,000,” Gasperson said. “That may have been where the discussion was at…not for a moment would I ever do anything to jeopardize personal finances or the county or to do anything illegal.

“I’m frankly really concerned that that accusation is being made.”

Commissioner Tom Pack said he’d like to clarify. First, Pack said, the attorney serves in an advisory role and an attorney cannot overrule commissioners.

“A decision was made in this session,” Pack said. “The board would be willing. What that means is there was a consensus of the board members to take that action. There’s no if’s, and’s, but’s about it. The board will be willing to settle…”

Gasperson responded to Pack that he would hope if commissioners overruled the attorney, the clerk would have made note of that in the minutes. Gasperson also said if that discussion occurred where the attorney, was advising against the action, he thinks he would remember that. Gasperson then said there was another person in that room in 2010 who was at the meeting, speaking of McDermott, and said commissioners may want to hear from her. McDermott raised her hand several times during the discussion but was denied speaking in accordance with the county’s new public comment rules.

“I’m just saying that I think this is being blown out of proportion,” Gasperson said. “I think it’s a good discussion to let the public know that commissioners cannot make adjustments like this. It’s engraved in my brain forever.”

Berg said boards are supposed to keep general detail or general accounts of closed session meetings. She said based on the minutes it leads her to believe maybe the county attorney wasn’t aware of this particular statute, saying this is a matter that doesn’t come up that often.

“And I would think the tax assessor is probably the person who objected by calling the property tax commission and learning it wasn’t possible,” Berg said.

Gage then asked for the commissioners’ oath of office when they are sworn into office to be placed on monitors for public view.

“This is our oath of office,” said Gage reading. “I do solemnly swear I will support the constitution of the United States and the constitution and laws of North Carolina.

“To me,” Gage continued, “there’s no doubt in my mind, they were considering breaking the law. But that’s my personal opinion.”

It was that statement that sparked Jim McDermott to say from the audience, “that’s slanderous.”

Commissioner chair Ted Owens, while Gage was still speaking, said to the McDermotts, “nope. No. Unless you want to go.”

Renée McDermott then asked to speak and Pack said to Owens he needed to have her removed for interrupting.

Owens then said you’ve been asked to be removed. Please leave.”

During this Renée McDermott stood saying as her husband just said, what Gage said was slanderous.

“I have asked several times to respond to these things as a person who has knowledge unlike the four of you,” she said. “And you have repeatedly refused.”

Owens then said, “please, please” and an officer came and escorted her out of the room.

“Mr. chairman, that’s all I have,” said Gage. “And I do encourage citizens to look at the closed session minutes and all minutes that the county has.”

See Renée McDermott’s full response after her removal, page 4.