HAMLET — Following the wishes of the city council, Hamlet’s city manager has sent the IRS a formal complaint about the actions of volunteers and board members who wore campaign paraphernalia during the recent Seaboard Festival.
Those volunteers included council member David Lindsey and his wife, Kim, the latter of whom was voted back in as Seaboard president this week after a five-week hiatus. Neither Lindsey was mentioned in the letter, although the couple’s actions were central to council members’ debate Tuesday on Seaboard politicking.
“(T)he City (has) filed a formal 13909 complaint with the IRS in regards to the political activity at the Seaboard Festival,” City Manager Jonathan Blanton said Friday. “The complaint was not filed in retaliation against any one member, nor was the complaint filed with any nature of animosity.
“Instead,” he said, “given the high level of recent media attention to the issue and to prevent any potential disgruntled whistle-blowing, the city chose to intervene on the Seaboard Festival’s behalf in order to facilitate an honest, open conversation about what happened and to voice resounding support” of the Seaboard Festival.
The Seaboard Festival is a 501(c)(3) organization, a tax-exempt nonprofit. IRS rules prohibit such organizations from campaigning for or against any candidate for public office. Organizations that flout IRS rules can be censured, fined or deprived of their tax-free status.
Mayor Bill Bayless instigated Tuesday’s discussion of Seaboard politicking, asking council members to consider the blandly worded “activities of the Seaboard Festival.” Bayless said he proposed a discussion so the council and Seaboard volunteers could “come to some kind of understanding” about politicking during city events.
“To me, it’s not an adversarial position,” Bayless said of his agenda item. “I think we just need to sit down and work out some issues about people working on the committee.”
But what occurred at Tuesday’s council meeting was less a discussion than a partisan debate that broke along clear lines: council members and political allies Jesse McQueen, Jonathan Buie and Eddie Martin on one side and David Lindsey and Wendy Massagee on the other.
McQueen and Martin had bolstered each others’ recent re-election campaigns, placing their yard signs next to each other. Buie joined them on Election Day, wearing a McQueen T-shirt at a Hamlet polling place. McQueen and Martin won the election handily.
Lindsey and Massagee had backed campaign newcomer Stephanie Corey Dixon, a new Seaboard board member whose pink-and-green “Vote for the Girl” T-shirts or hats — or both — they wore as volunteers for the festival and on Election Day, sitting one tent down from other council members at the polling place.
On Tuesday, City Attorney T.C. Morphis Jr. asked council members whether they wanted to make a formal complaint or leave that up to concerned individuals.
“The questions that have been raised are substantive,” Morphis told the council. “If individuals want to make an inquiry to the IRS … that would be appropriate.
“My question is, is this something the City of Hamlet needs to pursue?”
Apparently it was, because Martin then read a typed-up motion instructing Blanton to send a formal complaint to the IRS, asking that Seaboard volunteers be warned but that the Seaboard not lose its tax-exempt status. McQueen seconded, and council members voted.
McQueen, Buie and Martin voted “yes.” Massagee voted “no.” Council member Lindsey did not attend the meeting.
In his letter to the IRS, Blanton introduces himself before saying the complaint will discuss the issue of politicking with “open and candid frankness.” He cites a Nov. 10 article in the Daily Journal reporting that volunteers for the Seaboard festival wore “Vote for the Girl” paraphernalia during the festival.
The article arose from a reporter’s call to Bayless, asking what his agenda item concerned. The resulting article, advancing the meeting in three days, was accompanied by a photo of council member Lindsey wearing a pink Dixon hat while volunteering for the Seaboard.
Since the issue became the stuff of public comment, Blanton’s letter says, “(v)olunteers for the Festival have publicly shown remorse … and made assurances that such activity will not happen again. The City is confident that these assurances are true …
“(Therefore, it) respectfully requests that only a formal warning be issued to the Seaboard Festival.” The letter calls such a decision “reasonable leniency.”
Blanton said Friday that he had sent a draft of the letter to all council members and Bayless, and received no revisions or comments.
Massagee, David Lindsey and Kim Lindsey did not return phone calls for comment Friday afternoon.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673.