Parting Shot by McKenzie
Colin McKenzie has broken his silence on issues raised about election of the chairman of the Moore County Board of Commissioners.
In a scathing response to criticism about three commissioners' refusal to elect Tim Lea as chairman, McKenzie said he is "pleased that Mr. Lea was not selected" when the board held its annual election of officers at a Dec. 1 meeting.
After serving 12 years as a commissioner, McKenzie did not seek re-election this year. A retired Army colonel, he served as board chairman in 2007 and 2008. He is a former member of the Pinehurst Village Council and a former chairman of the Village Planning and Zoning Board.
"I have endured the bullying of Tim Lea for four years, and his conduct and activities have been, and are, unbecoming an elected official," McKenzie said at the conclusion of a three-page statement released to The Pilot. "Artful compromise is a necessary leadership quality that completely escapes Mr. Lea," McKenzie also said. "He seems to excel at what The Pilot calls 'unseemly bickering,' but he does promote himself well. Mr. Lea's penchant for 'my-way-or-the-highway' governance is not in Moore County's best interest."
The Pilot made repeated unsuccessful attempts to reach Lea for a response to McKenzie's comments.
McKenzie said he has been reading various comments by residents wanting to know why Lea, the commissioner with the most seniority, was not elected chairman. Because his name is frequently mentioned in those statements, McKenzie said he wants to clear the air and speak up in his own defense.
Although many of those comments from concerned residents emphasized Lea's longevity, McKenzie said such qualities as leadership, knowledge and teamwork were not explored by critics of the votes by three of the commissioners who backed new Commissioner Nick Picerno as chairman.
One concern, McKenzie said, centers on a meeting the five commissioners held prior to the swearing-in of three new members two years ago. That informal meeting, or caucus, in December 2006 was legal because Cindy Morgan, Jimmy Melton and Larry Caddell had not yet been sworn into office, and the two hold-over commissioners, Lea and McKenzie, did not constitute a quorum.
McKenzie said he agreed to serve as chairman in 2007 and recalls that rotation of the chairmanship was mentioned.
"We did discuss rotating, and it was mentioned that Mr. Lea would be the next in line," McKenzie said. "At no time during that discussion was that plan agreed to or set in concrete. Obviously, two of the board members thought we had agreed to rotate annually. That is not the way I remember that meeting."
The two commissioners are Lea and Morgan. It was Morgan who placed Lea's name in nomination for the 2008 chairmanship and who brought up the subject of rotation.
McKenzie said he "was shocked when it was suggested that we had agreed to rotate annually in a half-hour meeting, without further discussion."
At the end of 2007, McKenzie said fellow commissioners asked him to remain as chairman in 2008, and he agreed to do so.
McKenzie said he could not have supported Lea for the chairmanship and cites reasons including Lea's position on such issues as the airport, purchase of the Grimm property, acceptance of a software package gift from Southern Software as well as his "treatment of county employees."
The airport issue arose in 2007 when the Airport Authority approached the county about funding additional hangars for rental purposes, a measure designed to advance the airport's efforts to become fully self-supporting.
McKenzie called the airport a vital factor in the county's economy but he says Lea "worked tirelessly" against the project as proposed by the authority. Even after the board approved the project, McKenzie says Lea continued to erect "stumbling blocks."
Lea did not oppose the new hangars as such but disagreed with the proposed funding method, which involved county financing.
The Airport Authority is composed of five members appointed by the Board of Commissioners. All five serve in a volunteer capacity.
"His public treatment of these men was disgraceful," McKenzie said. "When they came before the board to brief and bring us up to date, Lea questioned every suggestion and request they made, practically demanding that they grovel for support.
"These men, all volunteers, have unlimited experience in aviation and banking. Four are retired military officers with a combined 90 years aviation experience, one is a vice president of one of our most prominent local banks, one a retired FAA official with years' of experience in procurement and airport set-up nationwide. You don't treat honorable men that way under any circumstances."
After the incident, McKenzie said that authority members approached him and offered to resign because "it was obvious that they were not considered competent for the job."
In response, McKenzie wrote a letter to the authority and apologized "for the fiasco that happened at our commissioners' meeting." McKenzie says the authority members finally agreed to remain in office but he adds that had he been in their position, he probably would have quit.
"People of this caliber are difficult to replace," McKenzie said.
Purchase of the Grimm property in downtown Carthage was another sore subject.
Lea agreed that the county needed to buy property to expand and renovate the jail and to build county office facilities but voted against buying the 21-acre tract for $1.5 million. Lea said publicly that the location was good, but the price was too high. He said other tracts were available in Carthage with much lower price tags.
However, McKenzie said the costs incurred with preparation of other available sites "would have been astronomical." He said the county consultant and other experts agreed that the Grimm property was the best choice because of its location adjacent to the existing jail and also because the site already has sewer and water lines available, among other advantages.
When Southern Software offered a gift valued at almost a quarter of a million dollars to the county, McKenzie said Lea raised questions inferring that the offer was improper.
McKenzie said the offer was not improper at all but merely a gesture of gratitude by the Southern Pines-based computer software company after receiving business from the county when the company was first getting started some years ago. McKenzie said company employees wanted to show appreciation for that business and that no strings were attached to the gift.
"Mr. Lea made every effort to make it look like something was improper in the offer," McKenize said. "He caused our legal department to spend many hours investigating the gift."
County Attorney Misty Leland consulted with the Institute of Government and other legal sources and ended up with 44 pages of "legalese and restrictions placed on the acceptance of the software before Mr. Lea was satisfied," McKenzie said.
The offer of software valued at more than $225,000 was of special interest because Commissioner Larry Caddell is an owner of the company and holds an executive position with Southern Software. Because of this association, it could, depending on circumstances, be a conflict of interest for the company to do business with the county.
One question raised after the gift was offered pertained to software purchased by the county prior to Caddell's election to the board. No conflict was involved because Caddell was not on the board at the time.
Picerno, who won the seat held by McKenzie, is the founder of Southern Software and a friend and colleague of Caddell. Picerno has retired from the company and no longer participates in its day-to-day operations, although he continues to serve as chairman of the board. The company is now owned by the 52 employees, including Caddell.
At the Dec. 1 meeting, three commissioners voted to elect Picerno as their new chairman, despite his position as the freshman member.
Morgan again nominated Lea for chairman, but the other three commissioners backed Picerno. The same vote resulted when Lea nominated Morgan and again when he attempted to nominate Morgan as vice chairwoman. Melton was elected vice chairman.
When it comes to propriety, McKenzie had other words about Lea. In his statement, McKenzie calls attention to cell phone antenna site contracts awarded to Lea and family members some 10 years ago when Lea was chairing the Moore County Planning Board.
Placement of wireless telecommunications towers and antennas is a matter determined by the planning panel, which holds a public hearing on each request by cell phone companies. In this case, the company was Sprint.
McKenzie acknowledged that there was nothing illegal about approval of the three sites in the Eastwood area owned by Lea and two close family members, but he said there was some talk of an appearance of conflict of interest.
Cell phone companies need about half an acre for each tower site and pay a monthly fee of about $1,800. If other carriers are allowed to co-locate antennas on the tower, the fee can be increased.
"To my knowledge, there was nothing illegal about the contracts, but it did smell bad," McKenzie said.
The election of Picerno as chairman this year "should have been a valuable learning experience" for Lea, according to McKenzie.
Lea won re-election to the District 4 seat on the board in November after defeating Tim Sloan in the Republican primary last May. He is now serving his second term on the board. Caddell, Melton and Morgan are in the middle of their first four-year terms.
In both campaigns for Board of Commissioners, Lea enjoyed support from influential members of the community, including former Sheriff James Wise and Katherine Ewing, widow of Robert S. Ewing, a longtime board member. Lea holds Ewing's old seat.
Others accompanying him when he filed for office earlier this year were former County Commissioners Mal Owings and Archie Kelly and former Whispering Pines Mayor Bob Zschoche.
Lea is a former member of the Sandhills Community College Board of Trustees and chaired the land-use steering committee and also the search committee that recommended hiring Dr. Susan Purser as county school superintendent. He is a businessman and lives in the Eastwood community.
Since his first election, Lea has pushed for more openness in county government and promoted establishment of a public-comment period at each board meeting, something that was later required by state law.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at 947-4962 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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