NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Just one week after coming under scrutiny for the use of public money, a New Hanover County commissioner reimbursed taxpayers for hundreds of dollars worth of civic and charity tickets.
As a result of our public records request, we have learned that Commissioner Rob Zapple reimbursed New Hanover County $242 late last month for:
- $35 ticket to a Coastal Horizons luncheon
- $22 ticket to the Jewish Film Festival at Thalian Hall
- $40 ticket to the Blue Ribbon Commission breakfast
- $60 ticket to the YWCA’s Women of Achievement Dinner
- $60 for Vietnam Veteran Memorial events
- $25 for a Chamber of Commerce breakfast
During the county commissioners' meeting Nov. 16, Commissioner Woody White requested commissioners adopt a policy banning any public money being spent for commissioners to attend civic and charity events.
His motion did not move forward due to push back from three fellow commissioners.
"I'm uncomfortable moving ahead with that comment until I can see the data," Zapple told White at the commissioners meeting. "I'd be interested to know, is there a lot of spending on galas and fundraising functions? I'm not sure that that's a real problem.... I attend a lot of non-profit events that I think are appropriate, and I pay for them. Out of my pocket."
Commissioner Beth Dawson questioned White's facts, and whether this type of questionable spending was even happening at all.
"I'm not aware of anything like that that's been going on as far as I'm concerned since I've been on this board," Dawson said.
Zapple's expenditures are just the most recent example we've reported of public money being used to buy civic and charity tickets for county commissioners.
Until recently, Commissioner Jonathan Barfield had been the only commissioner to consistently use tax money for these type of events. You picked up the tab for him to attend events like a $75 Red Dress Luncheon in 2014; a $125 Pink Ribbon Cocktail Party put on by the New Hanover Regional Medical Center foundation in 2013; and a $150 gala for the American Red Cross in 2014.
Barfield has said these events benefit the public he serves, and he couldn't afford to go if he had to pay for them all out of his own pocket.
Dawson says she attends many of these events, but usually pays her own way or has her tickets comped.
"Typically, those organizations, you're there as a complimentary guest because you are there in your official capacity," Dawson explained, saying she is often there to give remarks on behalf of the county.
While the overall amount spent on these types of events by commissioners isn't significant in the scope of the county budget, White still thinks commissioners are sending the wrong message to taxpayers.
"My feedback from taxpayers is universal. They think we need to be very cautious and deliberate in how we spend their money," White explained of his push for tighter spending controls.
Not only did Zapple push back against White's suggestion, he suggested an increase in the travel budget for commissioners. That's the same fund that is currently used to pay for charity and civic tickets.
We have reached out to Zapple for an explanation on what prompted him to reimburse the county for these tickets late last month, and if he will refrain from charging taxpayers for public appearances moving forward.