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Spring Lake board mixed on town finance director hire – Fayetteville Observer

Posted: Monday, September 21, 2015 6:42 pm

Spring Lake board mixed on town finance director hire

By Michael Futch Staff writer

SPRING LAKE – The Spring Lake town manager believes the municipality is in good hands with newly named Finance Director Claiburn “Butch” Watson, despite possible questions regarding his previous job.

On Town Manager Tad Davis’ recommendation, the Spring Lake Board of Aldermen approved Watson as finance director on a 3-1 vote during its Sept. 14 meeting. Watson had served as interim finance director since March.

Before coming to Spring Lake, Watson resigned as the interim county manager and finance director in Pender County amid concerns over an audit for fiscal 2013, according to published reports. The draft of the Pender County audit cited several mistakes made by the finance officer under the material weakness section.

“The finance officer failed to perform his duties,” the audit stated. “His assumption was that it was being prepared by other staff members, and he did not follow up on his duties.”

Earlier this year, Watson said he left Pender County a year ago because he was under a lot of stress, working as assistant county manager, director of finance and, by the third week of June 2014, interim county manager.

Davis acknowledged some concerns over Watson’s stint in Pender County. But he said during his background search, he came to understand some of the challenges Watson faced on that job. “I think there was probably a more balanced perspective on the actual circumstances that should have come out in the media,” Davis said.

Davis said Monday that Watson got the nod because of his experience at the town, county and municipality level. Davis said the recommendations he received were “outstanding,” and that Watson “has demonstrated an excellent working knowledge of the budget process and developing the budget.”

Watson, who is 60, said he wasn’t worried about the possibility of his departure from Pender County derailing his chances of landing the job full time in Spring Lake. “I knew that with my past employment history and my long employment history,” he said, “you could talk to anybody where I worked.”

Spring Lake normally seats five Board of Aldermen, but Richard Higgins’ open seat has not been filled since his death in June.

Board members James O’Garra and Densie Lucas voted in favor of hiring Watson. Alderwoman Fredricka Sutherland cast the lone dissenting vote, and Alderman James Christian abstained.

Christian’s formal decline to either vote for or against Watson was officially recognized as a vote for Watson’s hire.

That’s the law, according to Frayda Bluestein of the UNC School of Government.

“I voted against that hire because of the report that came back from his prior employment,” Sutherland said. “We are under state investigation for finances. I just felt he was not the person to take Spring Lake in a positive direction for our finances.”

Sutherland also voiced disapproval on how board action on the finance director came as a surprise.

“It should have been on the agenda,” she said, “giving the board opportunity to read (about) which finance director they’re hiring. They slipped it in because it wasn’t on the agenda. I don’t think that’s the correct way to do business.”

Davis said it was not on the agenda because, up to the meeting, he was still figuring out what the decision-making process on the hire would be.

Christian said he abstained because he didn’t like the way the hiring process excluded applicants who had previously applied for the job. After the position was initially advertised, he said, it was taken down before being advertised again.

“I just didn’t agree. I just wanted every applicant that applied to be considered,” Christian said. “I guess it was a protest non-vote.”

O’Garra said he spent time watching the interim finance director at work and getting to know him.

“I found him to be a straight-up individual,” he said. “I watched him through the budget transactions, and how he handled himself through the work that he put in. He spends the extra time. Whatever it takes.”

Lucas could not be reached for comment.

Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey has said Watson performed his duties well during his interim stint and received high marks from state officials who knew his work.

Staff writer Michael Futch can be reached at [email protected] or 486-3529.

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Monday, September 21, 2015 6:42 pm.

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