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Split commission sought help in Calabash, e-mails show

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Trouble in river city

By Laura Lewis, Reporter

CALABASH—Town commissioners have been seeking professional guidance about how to resolve their differences, according to a recent review of town e-mails.

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In recent months, friction has arisen among commissioners and townspeople over the town’s proposed Unified Development Ordinance, which a number of merchants complain consists of rules that do not fit in with Calabash or their ideas about what businesses ought to be allowed to do without government interference.

A Brunswick Beacon reporter’s public records request last week for town e-mails revealed commissioners in recent weeks, at the request of Calabash Mayor Anthony Clemmons, have sought guidance at resolving their differences from John Stephens, coordinator of the public dispute resolution program for the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

An e-mail Stephens sent Feb. 26 to town officials stated he was interviewing commissioners via individual, confidential phone conversations and exploring whether he could assist the board “in creating more productive, less contentious working relationships.”

It isn’t the first time for Stephens to deal with problems at town hall in the seafood capital.

He noted that in 1997, he “conducted a situation assessment concerning conflicts among members of the Calabash Board of Commissioners,” and used the information as an example for publication in the “Guidebook to Public Resolution in North Carolina.”

Stephens notes the latest tensions among commissioners are spurred by differences over a variety of topics that are “unlikely to be addressed productively in a short time frame.”

He advises the following “big-picture concerns probably need input from a wide range of citizens via elections, individual contacts with commissioners and various group discussions”:

•Competing visions for Calabash’s future.

•Differing views on how to assess business operators’ and owners’ concerns as well as those of “new” residents, some of whom may have moved to town as long as 20 years ago.

•The way commissioners “understand and value their experience with town government” to help determine goals for Calabash’s government, “appropriate content of ordinances and the management of town staff.”

Stephens notes commissioners also have differing views about their relationships with each other, the mayor and town staff.

Split commission

Stephens wrote commissioners attributed many of their problems “to a 3-2 (or 2-2) split” among themselves on “important issues, such as the proposed Unified Development Ordinance.” He added the split generally is seen as emanating from different views of “locals/business owners compared to newcomer residents.”

Tensions have arisen over “perceived harsh or inappropriate language exchanged during BOC [Board of Commissioners] meetings,” Stephens wrote.

Among his recommendations:

• “Promptly create an agreement” regarding the way the town attorney works with commissioners. Last week, commissioners approved a contract with town attorney Mark Lewis, who has been attending town meetings and closed sessions.

• “Private, two-commissioner meetings with a trusted moderator or mediator.” Stephens wrote this can be useful in “understanding past difficulties, exploring mutual changes of behavior for more effective board work, and to consider some specific issues to create new options for the full BOC to consider in public session.”

“I believe it is important to have exchanges that would bridge the 2-2 or 3-2 divide among commissioners and could include the mayor,” Stephens wrote.

As long as no committee appointments are made regarding organizing the meetings and the moderator arranges for such meetings, Stephens wrote such recommended “pairings” would not violate open meetings laws and could help develop ideas for board action in public sessions.