Hertford council backs off removing Eley

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T.C. Morphis Jr., an attorney with the Chapel Hill-based Brough Law Firm, gestures to the public during an emergency meeting of Hertford Town Council, Wednesday evening. Councilman Frank Norman is shown at left.


By Peter Williams
The Perquimans Weekly

Thursday, May 23, 2019

HERTFORD — A majority of the Hertford Town Council on Wednesday appeared to back away from removing one of its members from office after hearing advice from an outside attorney.

The five-member council took no action during an emergency meeting called to consider removing Councilor Sid Eley for receiving payments from the town that appear to violate Hertford policies.

At issue is whether Eley’s acceptance of a Christmas bonus from the town as a member of the Hertford Volunteer Fire Department violates state law or a town ordinance. Both the law and ordinance state that elected officials aren’t supposed to receive payments from the governmental body they’re elected to serve other than the annual salary they’re paid.

Hertford currently pays an annual Christmas bonus to the town’s volunteer firefighters. The bonus is based on the number of fire calls they respond to. The more responses they make, the larger their bonus. A typical bonus amounts to less than $1,000 even for Eley, who’s been a volunteer firefighter for 49 years and, according to officials, responded to the most number of calls by anyone department member in recent years.

Eley is also the only Hertford firefighter who is also a member of the Town Council. So the question confronting town councilors is whether Eley’s acceptance of the bonus violates the town’s policies and state law.

T.C. Morphis Jr., an attorney with the Chapel Hill-based Brough Law Firm, advised Hertford councilors Wednesday that state law isn’t clear when it comes to removing a public official for anything less than very serious charges. He said the council could vote to censure Eley, or approve a vote of no confidence in him, but neither would remove Eley from the council and could be challenged in the court.

He said his advice would be for council to “proceed cautiously.” He also urged Hertford councilors to adopt a standard code of ethics.

Morphis, who has worked with 19 municipal governments across the state, said he had been asked to attend Wednesday’s meeting at the request of Ben Gallop, one of the local attorneys — John Leidy is the other — who usually advise the town. Morphis explained that Gallop has performed legal work for some members of the council unrelated to their duties for the town, so he didn’t want his representation on the Eley matter to be seen as a possible conflict of interest.

“While what you are going through is a challenge, you are not alone,” Morphis told the board.

For his part, Eley said he asked the town’s auditor if there was a problem with him receiving the bonus other firefighters receive. Because the auditor told him it was not an issue, he said he never worried about it.

Councilman Quentin Jackson, Hertford’s mayor pro tem, said he wants Eley to return the money he received from the town for answering calls.

Eley said he has yet to be given a figure of just how much that is. In past meetings, the figures of $6,000 or $7,000 were tossed out. On Wednesday, Jackson said the figure may be more like $10,000.

Jackson wondered aloud whether the potential legal cost of getting the money back justified the effort. It is likely that Morphis would be hired to defend the town if Eley were to challenge the council’s directive he repay the money.

“I don’t want to pay you $10,000 to chase $10,000,” Jackson told Morphis.

Jackson said he’s fine with the town working with Eley on a repayment plan. However, if Eley doesn’t respond to the council’s demand for repayment, Jackson said he will call for Eley to be removed from office.

Jackson claimed he isn’t pursuing his complaint with Eley out of spite.

“I don’t want people to say what Quentin is doing is personal,” he said.

But the move by Hertford Town Council to remove Eley over the firefighter bonuses follows a judge’s ruling finding Jackson guilty of punching Eley in the head following a council meeting last October.

Jackson has appealed the ruling to Superior Court, but no trial date has been set. Jackson also faces a court appearance in Superior Court on an unrelated charge of felony perjury. Jackson is accused of claiming in court that he wasn’t on probation when he was stopped by a Hertford police officer in February 2018, when in fact he was for a criminal matter in Dare County.

While Eley wasn’t removed from his seat on Wednesday, a Hertford Planning Board member was removed from hers.

Jackson said Martha Borders had been disrespectful to the council when she’s attended meetings.

“You are not going to come in here and talk junk,” Jackson told Borders Wednesday.

Jackson made the motion to have Borders removed from the Planning Board, and Councilor Frank Norman seconded it. Both then voted for the motion.

Mayor Horace Reid and Eley voted no.

Councilwoman Grace Felton didn’t vote, but her apparent abstention was counted as a “yes” vote. Consequently, Borders was removed from the Planning Board by 3-2 vote.

‘I don’t know what happened,” Felton said in explaining why she didn’t vote on Borders’ removal.

Felton and Norman signed the order calling for Wednesday’s emergency meeting. Most residents were given less than three hours notice of the meeting. However, town officials claimed the meeting was still legal because it was held in response to an emergency.