HAMLET — The rush to refurbish South Hamlet Park “before the snow falls” has sparked a round of rumors, as well as a sometimes-cryptic email exchange that leaves city officials wondering openly about one another’s ethics.
Last August, city council members voted 3-2 during a special, eight-minute meeting to spend $22,000 on a south Hamlet park and to have City Manager Jonathan Blanton apply for a grant managed by the Foundation for The Carolinas to defray half the expense.
Some weeks earlier, the board for the Seaboard Festival also applied for a number of grants disbursed by the FFTC. The festival draws tens of thousands to Hamlet each fall.
On its face, there’s nothing odd about that. Municipalities and nonprofits often apply for dips into the same pool of grant money or apply for money from different charities managed by a shared foundation. What worries some people — most notably, Councilmen Jesse McQueen and Johnathan Buie — is that fellow Councilman David Lindsey is associated with both the Hamlet government and the Seaboard Festival, and voted against Hamlet’s grant attempt.
“So the city and the Seaboard Committee (sic) applied for the same grant,” McQueen wrote in an email to the city manager Tuesday, after council members learned that the city had not won the grant it applied for in August. “I think we need to look at possible conflicts of issue (sic), since Councilman Lindsey voted against the (city’s) grant while the Seaboard Committee — with his wife as President — was applying for a grant to build a stage on property they currently own.”
At first blush, the email appears to worry whether Lindsey should have been involved in deciding whether or not to pursue competing grants. That would assume that FFTC managed only one pool of grant money, and that one applicant could — in theory — beat out another.
But McQueen said Thursday that it wasn’t competition he was worried about. Rather, he thought David Lindsey should have recused himself from the city vote because he knew about the Seaboard application and stood to gain financially if that grant went through, allowing Lindsey and his wife, Kim, to improve the property and later donate it to the festival.
That, McQueen said, presented the possibility that a city official — David Lindsey — could profit in city and other tax breaks for donating property to a nonprofit managed by his wife.
“That will save them money in paying (their) taxes,” McQueen said. “I think he should have recused himself with a vote from the city.
“Anything that is a gray area needs to be looked into to make sure it’s handled properly,” he said. “If there’s no conflict of interest, then we move on.”
Blanton said Thursday that he had understood McQueen’s email to express concern about potential competition between grant applicants. His email notifying council members of the lost grant mentioned that other local entities had applied for grants in the same cycle — including the Seaboard Festival — and included a portion of the letter notifying Hamlet that it had not won the grant it applied for.
“(The foundation) board engaged in a long discussion about the project,” FFTC executive vice president Brian Collier writes in a note that Blanton circulated among council members. But since Hamlet already had “prioritized the park renovation … and fully funded the project,” giving the city a grant for the park didn’t seem so “urgent.”
“BTW,” Collier writes, “I thought you might like to know that they did fund other projects with a tie to Hamlet.” Those were a FirstHealth application to upgrade a walking trail near Fairview Heights Elementary School and an application by Helping Hands of Hamlet for its Backpack Pals program, which provides food for low-income children leaving school for the weekend.
Four hours after receiving the notification on the fate of the grant, McQueen sent Blanton an email noting the Lindseys’ interest in two grant applications — for the city and for Seaboard.
“We weren’t competing for the same prize,” Seaboard president Kim Lindsey said in answer to McQueen’s objection, also assuming his difficulty was with potential competition.
Kim Lindsey and McQueen have butted heads before, most recently when the Seaboard backpedaled on a promise to build and donate a stage to the city.
For his part, David Lindsey said that he would have voted for the grant, had it not been tied to the vote to buy the park equipment outright. He said he worried that buying the equipment and then asking for partial reimbursement from a grantor would work against the city’s application, which it ultimately seemed to do.
“I didn’t have a choice in the way it was presented,” he said — he couldn’t vote against the park and for the grant application, so he voted “no” on the dual motion.
“I voted against it because of the way it was done,” he said. “I’ve never heard of a park emergency.”
As for gaining a tax break for a land donation, Lindsey found that possible but unlikely and didn’t see the connection to the park vote: “I don’t see any rationale there.”
Council member Wendy Massagee said she also had problems with the playground vote.
“This was, I felt, done awfully hastily,” she said, without council members receiving enough information to deliberate properly. Massagee voted with Lindsey against paying for the park and applying for the grant, asking why the vote had to be taken so expeditiously.
Buie’s contribution to the email chain speculates that “a citizen from Hamlet” tried to influence the FFTC against Hamlet’s application.
“I have heard the same thing,” McQueen replied. “If proven true, we need to seek advice of … our lawyer. Sad!”
Council members McQueen, Buie and Eddie Martin voted for the dual playground equipment purchase and grant application during the special meeting Aug. 24.
Both Martin and Mayor Bill Bayliss have expressed disappointment in the loss of the grant. Council member Buie could not be reached for comment.
The new jungle gym is set to be installed by Oct. 11.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673.