PITTSBORO — Growth and development are creating many changes for Pittsboro, but last week’s resignation of the town’s manager and recent departures of other key town staff are signaling even …
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PITTSBORO — Growth and development are creating many changes for Pittsboro, but last week’s resignation of the town’s manager and recent departures of other key town staff are signaling even more changes inside Pittsboro’s Town Hall — moves which new Mayor Jim Nass thinks will improve the town’s ability to serve its stakeholders.
Chatham County — and Pittsboro in particular — are among the fastest-growing areas in the state. According to the U.S. Census, Chatham’s population has grown 84 percent in the past 25 years. And the construction of Chatham Park, a 7,000-acre planned community in Pittsboro, is projected to add as many as 60,000 new residents there over the next 30 years.
As the pressures and workloads on the town staff increased in recent months, so have concerns about the responsiveness, transparency and efficacy of some staff. Local residents, business owners and developers have complained about, among other things, phone calls and emails going unanswered and delayed permitting and planning processing times. In addition, residents’ access to town staff, public information and the deliberations of the Pittsboro Board of Commissioner became more constrained.
Following Town Manager Bryan Gruesbeck’s abrupt resignation on Jan. 27, Nass told the News + Record that he’s confident of his board’s — and the town’s staff — ability to correct existing problems and face the challenges ahead.
One particular instance leading up to last week’s regular commissioners’ meeting involved records of work sessions, meetings which commissioners hold to address specific subjects outside the board’s regular meeting schedule. These types of meetings, defined as “special meetings” under state law, require all the same notice and minutes as regular meetings — including keeping a record of the meetings and publishing minutes of same.
The News + Record discovered, however, after a month-long investigation, in consultation with attorneys from the N.C. Press Association, that the town may not have been keeping records of those meetings — a clear violation of the state’s “open meetings” law.
After reviewing two years of regular board meeting records to determine how many of these special meetings occurred, when they occurred and what topics they covered in order to consider a records request, a request by the News + Record for all minutes and corresponding documents for any work session that occurred covering the town’s deliberations on its new Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) was made to the town.
On Jan. 16, nearly a month after the initial request for the documents, Gruesbeck stated in an email to the newspaper that “the town does not keep minutes or recordings of the workshops.” But five days later, the News + Record received copies of what were termed as “minutes” from five “UDO” work sessions.
The minutes for the town’s March 18, 2019, session, the News + Record discovered — with the purpose designated “to continue discussions on the UDO” — actually should have reflected a Chatham Park “tree element” work session, which the board voted on Feb. 25, 2019, to hold.
“It is concerning to hear a town representative admit that minutes were not kept, and then days later, minutes appear,” said Amanda Martin, NC Press Association General Counsel. “That concern is heightened if the minutes appear to reflect a meeting that never happened. The public is left to wonder how those minutes were created and how reliable other minutes from other meetings are.”
At the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 27, the board approved the same UDO minutes that the News + Record received — minutes of a meeting which likely didn’t occur. The board, though aware there had been a question of whether minutes were being recorded, was not made aware of the concern over the validity of the minutes.
The board also directed staff to begin keeping better records of work session meetings.
Throughout that process, the News + Record repeatedly requested to meet with Gruesbeck to discuss the matter. Gruesbeck did not respond to those requests and eventually told representatives of the newspaper he would not meet with them.
Nass, who was not the mayor at the time of the work sessions in question, met with News + Record Publisher Bill Horner III and this reporter on Friday after the meeting. During that meeting, Nass said board had raised concerns to Gruesbeck in the past about records and the accessibility of documents. He told the News + Record the board should use audio recording, not just minutes, for all its sessions, whether it be a work session or budget retreat.
“This isn’t just so that my neighbor can listen to a recording of meetings,” Nass said. “This is so any of us can go back six months after the fact and hear what we discussed. It’s not just about transparency, it’s a way to measure our progress on what we’re trying to do.”
Nass noted that in the same vein, he believed the board should review departmental goals and budgets more than just once a year. He hopes at a minimum, the board will choose to hold such meetings every six months or quarterly. He also believes that those regular updates, provided by each department head, will provide an opportunity for an assessment of the needs of each as the town’s responsibilities grow.
WATER AND WASTEWATER CONCERNS
As the town continues to grow, so do concerns over the town’s wastewater capacity and water quality. The town’s drinking water, which comes from the Haw River, has been found to carry unregulated chemicals such as 1.4 Dioxane and PFAS — both considered potentially harmful — coming from industries located upstream from Pittsboro.
At the same time, the town’s wastewater treatment plant is nearing capacity. The town has been working for more than three years to secure permits for a new sewer line to Sanford. With progress on the permit process dragging, Nass noted the town may be heading to a “moratorium” on permitting for projects that require sewer.
With the recent resignation of Elizabeth Goodson, the town’s engineer — she’s taking a job with the town of Holly Springs — the town’s ability to address those issues becomes more complicated. Nass views concerns about sewer capacity and water quality as two of the most important issues facing the town.
“For months, we’ve been hearing the delay in the sewer permit is that state agencies aren’t talking to each other,” Nass said. “We need to work as a board to decide what else we can do to help move the process along.”
Nass cited the recently-created Water Task Force, which is working to address the town’s water quality issues. He believes that between its work, in conjunction with the options and recommendations laid out in the Chatham County Comprehensive Utilities Plan, his board will be able to make well-informed decisions about solutions.
“We need to decide on our options and move forward,” Nass said. “This is too important for all of our residents.”
With Gruesbeck’s departure, town attorney Paul Messick is serving as short-term interim town manager as the town works to find a long-term interim manager while the search for a permanent manager progresses. Nass notes he’s already been in communication with two potential candidates who have served in similar roles for other towns. That interim will have a lot on his or her plate — working to secure the town’s infrastructure needs, continuing work through the planning and development arena and overseeing a process for their permanent replacement.
Nass is hoping that with the search for a new town manager comes an opportunity to create a new model for the town’s operations in light of its projected growth.
“We are not the same town we were seven years ago,” Nass said.
Nass says the board of commissioners may consider working together to create a new job description for the position. Nass is hoping for a candidate who will able to face the challenges of the growing town and staff while also taking an active role in town life and the community. He’s hopeful the new town manager will have a work philosophy that supports, builds and trusts the staff members to fulfill their roles as well. To that end, he is suggesting the board identify key personnel and hold exit interviews with those staff members who are leaving so they can understand what elements of Pittsboro government’s work culture should change to improve efficiency and worker satisfaction.
“A good manager supports their staff and recognizes when they need more,” Nass said.
WORKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
While the town seems to be at a crossroads, Nass believes that he and his fellow commissioners are willing to “put in the work” to create a better foundation for the future. That way they can turn their collective focus to their regular work and celebrate the other positive activities upon which the town is embarking.
“There’s a lot of positive things that are coming,” Nass said. “Like the Main Street Welcome Center — that will be a game-changer.”
Nass is also looking forward to working with the town’s African-American community to preserve and honor the town’s history. That includes a proposed historical park honoring the town’s best-known freed man of color, Lewis Freeman, who was one of the town’s first residents. In addition, he wants to work with the Chatham Community NAACP to memorialize the sites of the six lynchings which occurred in the county.
“I believe that together, the board and I can come up with a solid path forward with ways to measure our progress,” Nass said. “We can work to create a town organization that can overcome its current challenges and move forward to celebrate the things that make Pittsboro unique.”
Reporter Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.