State treasurer concerned councilman thinks he’s above the law

Councilman also serving as town finance officer
State treasurer concerned councilman thinks he’s above the law
Published: Jul. 18, 2022 at 4:06 PM EDT
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NAVASSA, N.C. (WECT) - North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell is speaking out about ongoing financial issues in the Town of Navassa, and has specific concerns with the person recently appointed to serve as the town’s finance officer. Folwell said he is worried that Navassa Town Councilman James Hardy, who is serving double duty as the town’s finance officer, perceives himself as “above the law.”

Navassa Police say they tried to initiate a traffic stop on Navassa Town Councilman James Hardy on July 7, after noticing his car had expired tags. Police say Hardy failed to stop for their blue lights and kept driving until he reached his driveway. When asked by police why he didn’t stop sooner, Police Chief Darryll DeCotis said Hardy replied, “Because I didn’t have to.”

He was then arrested charged and with driving with a revoked license and failing to heed lights or siren. Hardy was booked under a $3,500 bond.

“We don’t need a community like Navassa, that is taking money from taxpayers, having people signing checks, who think they’re above the law. And we’re deeply concerned about that,” Treasurer Folwell told WECT. “The tragedy of this is that there’s no transparency. There’s been a lack of competence, and a complete lack of governance because they couldn’t even get a meeting together to approve the budget. And it takes away from the historical importance of that community, which is deep, rich and worth knowing about.”

Councilman Hardy says the arrest, and his reaction to being arrested, didn’t happen like it’s been portrayed.

“The only thing I told him about stopping is I just wanted to get to a safe, secure location, which was my house,” Hardy said, noting he was already on the road where he lives when the officer turned on his blue lights to initiate the traffic stop. He said he is working to get his license restored, but drove to town hall without a license because he needed to get checks to sign while he is filling in as finance officer.

“I never mentioned my position at all. He said he was going to treat me like a regular citizen and that is all that I asked for as well,” Hardy added.

After holding several town meetings without enough members of council present so they could legally vote on town business, Navassa town leaders held a meeting in mid-June to discuss ongoing issues with the town’s finances and other administrative shortcomings. It was during that meeting that Hardy was appointed as finance officer, after the resignation of the town’s former finance officer, Claudia Bray.

During the interim period between finance officers, the town had been unable to pay its bills, including payroll.

“There was no one there to sign the checks. I sent a letter which I’ll provide to you, to the District Attorney and to the Sheriff. It says that anyone who’s caught signing a check on the town of Navassa should be criminally prosecuted because they are not duly appointed as the finance officer,” Folwell said of the situation that had left the town effectively unable to operate. While they have a finance officer now, reports of Hardy’s recent comments to police leave Folwell concerned.

Police Chief DeCotis said infighting between various members of council is seriously interfering with the business of the town. The issues have directly impacted his department, with his force going about a week not getting paid because the town essentially had to cease operating until they could appoint a new finance officer to sign checks.

The ongoing administrative issues in Navassa were so dire last summer that every member of the town’s Police Department resigned. Since maintaining staff at the Navassa PD was a recurring problem, District Attorney Jon David recommended at the time that the town disband it’s police department, and contract with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office to perform patrols and respond to emergency calls in the town limits.

Navassa town officials declined to follow that advice and then ran into more issues when a man volunteering for their fledgling police force was arrested for impersonating a police officer. Eric Cinnoti had a badge, a police cruiser, and a gun that he was using to respond to calls, but had not been certified as a law enforcement officer.

Navassa finally rebuilt its police force in recent months, but officers are agitated that their paychecks were recently interrupted because of the town’s administrative issues. When Hardy was appointed as finance officer in June, he issued the officers bonuses in lieu of the paychecks they were owed, but those did not completely make up the financial shortfall some officers faced when they were unexpectedly furloughed.

DeCotis also suspected Councilman Hardy retaliated against police for arresting him, noting his most recently hired officer, who quit a full-time job to join Navassa Police, was effectively demoted from full-time to part-time hours at Hardy’s urging. But Hardy says the officer in question was hired as a part-time officer from the start, and there was no demotion.

Responding to another claim that Hardy had the locks changed on Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis’s office, and refused to give the Mayor a key, Hardy again said the story had been misconstrued. Hardy said town leaders had to move financial documents from an exterior storage unit to the mayor’s office, and the locks were changed to ensure the documents were secure. Hardy said that he had a new key made for the Mayor, and simply forgot to give it to him before leaving town for vacation. He said there was no intent to keep the Mayor out of his own office.

When reached by phone, Mayor Willis said he appreciated the concerns brought to WECT’s attention, but he declined to comment because, “I still have to try to lead this town.”

When asked what other avenues the state might take to rectify this seemingly dysfunctional situation, State Treasurer Dale Folwell said there are extreme measures they can take if a town cannot get back on track on its own.

“We just de-chartered [the town of] East Laurinburg for the first time in state history. That was last week. And it’s because of over 10 years of not producing audits. The State Auditor went in and found checks made out to petty cash and there’s no petty cash account. And the person that signed the front of the check could be related to the person that signed the back of the check. And so we just de-chartered East Laurinburg, and you know, these communities, where these local elected officials put their left hand on the Bible and raise their right hand and swear to uphold the laws of their community in the state. If they can’t do so, with competence, with transparency and the right governance. They don’t need to be taking taxpayer money going forward,” Folwell said.

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