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Tape reveals dispute in city meeting

 

New light cast on accusations that sparked libel threat

FRANK TAYLOR

Managing Editor

 

“I understand, mayor, you’re not going to do anything to support me, that’s loud and clear; I’m good with that,” Lincolnton City Manager Jeff Emory told Mayor John Gilleland Jr. during an emotional closed session in December.

The exchange was one of several heated moments revealed recently after the city responded to a Times-News request for a recording of the closed session. Media law experts have said the City Council acted improperly by discussing a threat of libel action against a local news website in a closed session and the tape of the meeting should be released to the public.

New information about the allegations against Emory that sparked the discussion, from independent journalist Jon Mayhew, has also emerged in recent days.  The Times-News talked with Mayhew last week and spoke with Emory and other city officials on Tuesday regarding the assertion that the city manager improperly aided Democrats in at least one political campaign last year.

Regarding things said during the December session, Emory said Tuesday that “emotions were running high that night” and he has spoken to the mayor since then.

Gilleland also discussed the situation this week and confirmed that Emory came to him and apologized.

“I was really shocked that he took me on like that,” the mayor said on Tuesday. “We went at it pretty good.”

 

Heated debate

 

Emory’s claim during the meeting that Gilleland wouldn’t support him came after the mayor suggested that the city manager could foot the bill for any threat of legal action against Mayhew himself, saying that’s what Gilleland would do if the tables were turned.

“Nothing is stopping you,” Gilleland told Emory. “If you want to do something personal, you can go right ahead.”

The two then engaged in a dispute over whether the mayor should have been provided with copies of phone records that Mayhew had requested in pursuit of his claims about Emory inappropriately giving confidential city files to candidates.

“What about my copy of those phone records?” Gilleland demanded. “Why haven’t I seen them yet?”

“Cause typically the mayor don’t get copies of phone records,” Emory responded. “If you would like us to provide every piece of information we have, we can.”

“I’d like to see them,” Gilleland persisted.

“Well, I mean, you know, I’m loud and clear where I stand with you, mayor,” Emory replied. “Loud and clear.”

“You should be,” the mayor said.

The dispute then focused on the relationship between the mayor and the council.

“And while we’re at it,” Emory asked the council, “I want to get clear, too, do I work for the mayor or the five of y’all?”

North Carolina law is clear that the city manager works for both mayor and council, even though the mayor in Lincolnton’s form of government can only vote to break a tie.

Indicating concern that his integrity had been attacked, Emory sought a clear statement from the council. “I want to know what the decision was about my request,” he said. “Is there no action now, or are you going to take action?”

Council members generally agreed that if Mayhew was not being honest about Emory it was unfortunate, but were less inclined to agree about what action if any the city should take and whether it needed to happen immediately.

Gilleland, who generally opposed city involvement, reminded the board of Mark Twain’s warning never to start a war with the news media who buy “ink by the barrel.” That apparently touched a nerve with Emory.

“I just hope, mayor, that you never go through this,” he said.

“If I do, I’ll take care of it,” Gilleland responded. “I won’t get somebody else to take care of it.”

 

Mayhew’s claims

 

At the heart of last year’s debate was a statement from Mayhew’s online “Carolina Scoop,” that said he had learned from sources whose names he was withholding that Emory had passed a city phone list on to a Democratic campaign for city government.

Speaking with Mayhew and various city officials this week, the Times-News found that many of the facts are not actually in dispute, despite being interpreted differently by those involved.

Although not previously specified, Mayhew said this week that it was Cloninger who called city employees using phone lines that should not have been common knowledge.

While Mayhew was not willing to reveal the names of any of his sources or allow access to them, even with a promise from the Times-News to protect their identities, the newspaper has talked on its own with multiple independent sources in recent weeks who tell basically the same story, with calls from Cloninger going to employees in several city departments shortly before the election.

While most of those talking with the Times-News about the situation did so on the condition that their names not be used, one party confirmed the major details and had no problem with his name being given: Dr. Les Cloninger.

Cloninger told the Times-News on Tuesday that he did call a large number of city employees just before the election and did receive a list of city employees.

But Cloninger said he requested the public information list from the city’s human resources director, not Emory, and it didn’t include any phone numbers, confidential or otherwise.

Instead, the city council member said he had to use his own resources to cross reference the name list and find phone numbers for those city employees who lived within the city limits and were eligible to vote.

“I also called about three to four thousand other people,” he said.

Cloninger said he was very aggravated with Mayhew for writing things that he doesn’t know but only thinks, describing it as “so hurtful.”

Mayhew, however, remained confident last week in his interpretation of what his sources have told him. Some of his sources, Mayhew said, have described calls on phone lines that Cloninger shouldn’t have been able to obtain except through confidential city records.

Some of the sources to whom the Times-News has talked have said the same thing, but so far none of them have produced an example of such a number that can be verified.

It’s not actually clear under North Carolina law that the city could legally maintain a list of phone numbers for employees that would be anything other than public record, and fair game for political candidates or anyone else to view.

Mayhew also remained certain that only Emory could have ordered the release of such a phone list to Cloninger.

“Jeff Emory knows that he’s been bested once again,” Mayhew claimed. “He’s a desperate man. After three years, I cracked him.”

There’s little dispute that Mayhew’s reports have frequently portrayed the city manager in an unfavorable light and his commentary has often been harshly critical of Emory’s actions.

The website owner, who has since moved to South Carolina, said he thinks the other city officials involved in December’s session may have slandered him when they called his statements lies.

“They are not smart because they have opened themselves up for a lawsuit,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m looking at legal action, but I’m not saying I’m not.”

 

Moving forward

 

Following criticism in the Times-News over December’s meeting, the council quickly conducted an additional session and halted efforts to threaten Mayhew with a libel suit.

All city officials the Times-News spoke to this week agreed that since that time the relationship between Gilleland and Emory has improved.

Cloninger described a very productive budget retreat the city conducted last weekend, noting “so much progress” since the quarrels in December and the desire to forget the attitude of partisanship.

The mayor told the Times-News that he and Emory are trying to work together to do what’s best for the citizens of Lincolnton.

Although Emory preferred to keep his comments on the situation to a minimum, he did not dispute the more harmonious air so far this year.

Reflecting back on what happened nearly three months ago, Gilleland characterized Emory’s remarks in the meeting as “pretty unprofessional,” then added, “I wasn’t extremely professional coming back — but I was mad.”

 

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