Council members to mayor: resign
Four High Point City Council members on Friday called on Mayor Bernita Sims to resign, arguing that her personal financial problems have eroded public confidence in the city’s leadership.
Some council members say they’ve been flooded with phone calls.
Others worry the strife among the council will only increase.
Some complain it’s embarrassing.
In separate letters to the editor to The High Point Enterprise sent Friday, council members Jim Davis, Judy Mendenhall, Jason Ewing and Becky Smothers state that the issues surrounding Sims have caused their constituents to question the credibility of the council as a whole and threaten its ability to function.
In their letters, Davis and Mendenhall also called on Councilman Foster Douglas to resign because of his financial issues, which include a $32,000 federal judgment he owes the city.
Smothers limited her resignation request only to Sims.
Sims responded that she has no intention of resigning.
“I have no intentions of vacating my office as mayor based on letters from High Point City Council members or motions to step down,” Sims wrote in a response Friday evening.
Smothers said she plans to make a motion at an upcoming council meeting asking Sims to resign.
Smothers said she believes such a motion will pass. If it does, it wouldn’t require Sims to resign. The council doesn’t have the power to compel any member of the city’s governing body to step down. Under state law, an elected official can only be removed from office if they’re convicted of a felony.
The council has scheduled a special meeting for Friday, Sept. 27 to hold a closed session for the annual performance review of the city manager and city clerk.
“The lack of communication and explanation by Mayor Sims as well as the absence of resolution had challenged the stability and credibility of our government. I felt a plan of action was needed,” Smothers wrote.
The Enterprise contacted Sims on Friday morning for a response to the calls for her to resign. She said she would respond only in writing, which she did in a statement published with the letters from council members on page A9.
“There have been few conversations between myself and the council regarding any of the issues that have been played out in the media,” Sims wrote. “My personal life is my personal life. I have consistently since taking the oath of office performed the duties of this office in a manner that is consistent with my peers.”
Douglas didn’t respond to messages seeking comment Friday.
SBI INVESTIGATION, UNPAID TAXES AND BILLS
Sims has been the subject of a string of revelations about various financial affairs since May, when the Enterprise reported that she had been investigated by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation in connection with her handling of the estate of a family member in Maryland. SBI agents looked into an allegation that Sims passed a worthless $7,000 check to one of the estate’s heirs, and later expanded their investigation to look into possible misuse and misappropriation of funds from the estate.
Prosecutors with the N.C. Attorney General’s Office have not yet determined whether to file charges. A worthless check involving an amount more than $2,000 is a felony under state law.
Last month, the Enterprise reported that the mayor was delinquent on $538.78 worth of city utility bills at her former residence from August to December 2012.
She paid the balance the day after the newspaper reported the delinquencies, explaining that they were an oversight resulting from confusion about whether to pay the city or another agency, since the matter had been referred to a state collection program.
Last week, the newspaper reported that the N.C. Department of Revenue had served the city with a garnishment notice for $5,578.93 that Sims owed in overdue state income taxes, penalties and interest from 2003, 2007, 2008 and 2009. The city has begun withholding a portion of her salary as mayor to comply with the state order.
Douglas faces garnishment of his council salary for unpaid federal and state income taxes totalling more than $17,000. He also owes the city more than $32,000 stemming from the 2003 dismissal of a federal lawsuit he brought against the city.
‘THIS IS CONSUMING MY LIFE’
Davis, a first-term council member, said he reached his decision to call for the resignations of Sims of Douglas reluctantly. He was the first of the four council members to send letters to the editor on Friday calling for the resignations.
“This is a tough and unpleasant position,” he said. “I guess we’re sort of guilty of sitting on the sidelines and giving them both the benefit of the doubt to see if they would make some public statement or acknowledgement, because that’s what the public is wanting.”
Davis said he tried to take the attitude that the issues surrounding Sims and Douglas were purely personal in nature and wouldn’t become a distraction from council business.
The public, however, has called into question the effectiveness and credibility of the council as a whole because of the perception that he and other council members are condoning Sims’ and Douglas’ handling of their respective affairs, he said.
“People ask me what the mayor has told council, but she’s never had a conversation with us as group or individually, and they’re flabbergasted by that,” Davis said. “Some days, I’ve got 25 or 30 voicemails at home about this. This is consuming my life.”
Smothers said what happened at a closed meeting that Sims called Monday swayed her thinking.
The closed session was held to discuss personnel, and Smothers and other council members declined to disclose the details of the discussion.
Still, Smothers suggested the session was tense.
“Some of (Sims’) comments implied that she didn’t have confidence in the council and had a lack of respect for the position we held,” Smothers said.
Smothers served as mayor for all but four of the 20 years preceding Sims’ election in 2012, when she was elected to an at-large council seat.
IF A VOTE IS TAKEN, THEN WHAT?
Councilman Jeff Golden, who holds the Ward 1 seat that Sims occupied from 2003 to 2012, said Friday he hadn’t decided whether to support calls for the resignation of either Sims or Douglas.
“I have some questions for the mayor and (Douglas) that I would like answered before I vote,” Golden said. “You’ve got to remember, I’m in the ward that Bernita oversaw for 10 years. So, it’s a very pro-Bernita ward. And my ward borders Foster’s ward, which is a very pro-Foster ward. The way their constituents view them is a little bit different than the city as a whole. And I recognize that. But, still, we as council people have to do what’s best for the city.”
Councilman Jason Ewing said he supports calls for Sims to resign, but is reserving judgment on Douglas.
“I think if Foster arranged to pay the judgment, then I don’t have a problem sharing the dais with him. He was elected three times with this already out there,” Ewing said. “Everything that’s come out regarding the mayor was post-election, so the people haven’t had an opportunity to voice an opinion through the election process how they feel about her personal affairs.”
Councilman Jay Wagner said he supports calls for Sims and Douglas to resign, but hopes that it won’t come to a vote, which could make things even more awkward among the council.
“There’s nothing we can do to force a resignation, so if it doesn’t happen, I don’t know where that puts us as a council, other than being in a constant state of confrontation,” Wagner said.