Spruce Pine council dealing with rift
SPRUCE PINE – Town council’s May 9 meeting became tense during a discussion on whether to seek bids for mowing services, publicly revealing a rift between two council members.
It was disclosed during the meeting that Councilman Rocky Buchanan had recently asked Town Manager Richard Canipe to request open bids for service from landscaping companies. Jeff Harding, who’s married to Spruce Pine Mayor Darla Harding, owns and operates Harding’s Landscaping and Maintenance, which for years has routinely performed work for the town.
Mayor Harding told the News-Journal she thinks Buchanan’s actions are a form of retaliation resulting from her efforts to push the council to accept applications for council’s vacant seat instead of appointing Buchanan’s personal choice, Roger Burleson.
Harding also said she thinks Buchanan does not respect her in the role of mayor.
“Well sure, I respect her,” Buchanan said when asked about Harding’s comments.
Buchanan said his request for a bid process had nothing to do with the conflict surrounding the vacant council seat, adding that during election season residents had expressed concerns to him about the town’s relationship with Harding’s Landscaping.
Mayor Harding has been on council since 2009 and was elected mayor this past November. Harding’s Landscaping began mowing at the town cemetery in 2007, according to Canipe. In 2013, the company started regularly mowing at town hall, the police department and the town’s major intersections. Harding’s also does work downtown and at Riverside Park.
The town makes monthly payments to Harding’s based on the amount of work done. In fiscal year 2014-2015, the town paid Harding’s a total of $34,778 for mowing. The previous year, the amount was $27,966.
For the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, the town has paid Harding’s $22,475.
Unlike construction or purchase contracts, North Carolina law does not require municipalities to have a bidding process for service contracts. Council has to direct the town manager to seek bids for mowing services.
In 2013, the town, at council’s request, bid out its contract for mowing service, and Harding’s was the lowest bidder, Canipe said.
The scene during the May 9 meeting played out like this: Canipe told councilmembers he needed a consensus from the board on whether he should advertise for bids for mowing services. Buchanan said he has no problem with the work Harding’s does for the town, but residents have expressed concerns to him about the potential for preferential treatment.
Buchanan said the town should request bids to ensure the process is fair.
“I’ll be happy to bid,” said Jeff Harding during a back-and-forth with Buchanan at the meeting. “But I will say at this time if it’s a sealed bid and you ask for the bids to be revisited again after my bid is open, then I will seek legal action against you.” Harding was referencing a similar situation that happened in 2013.
“That’s fine,” Buchanan responded.
Canipe said councilmen James Acuff and Larry McKinney told him they had no problem with the town’s current relationship with Harding’s Landscaping.
Acuff said Buchanan should’ve brought the issue to council and not the town manager.
“It should’ve been a consensus with us before it was even brought to Richard,” he said.
McKinney was not at the meeting.
Mayor Harding, who hadn’t yet spoken up to that point in the discussion, said to Buchanan, “And while we’re this deep into it, and I’m not talking about the mowing contract, but I would appreciate a phone call sometime before you go immediately to the town manager when it involves a council decision.
“And that is not happening on this board. I am the mayor for at least another year and a half, little over it. I feel like, and I know for a fact, that I have been bypassed on several phone calls. And so if you could just extend to me that courtesy, the same courtesy you would extend any other mayor and have extended any other mayor up until this point.”
Buchanan responded by saying he has no problem if Jeff Harding gets the contract and that his company does great work.
“But just to let the people know we’re doing the right thing” was his intent in seeking bids, Buchanan said.
“It just seems like when you go around trying to come in the backdoor that’s not your intent,” Mayor Harding replied, to which Buchanan said, “I asked for a bid process and I still think it’s the right thing to do. At least it’ll let the taxpayers know it ain’t backdoor politics.”
Harding said the reason she requested an application process to fill the vacant council seat was also to avoid “backdoor politics.” Council has had a vacant seat since this past November’s General Election.
Canipe said he needed a decision on the bid process.
“At this point, today, what am I supposed to do with this problem?” he asked.
Buchanan then made a motion for the town to advertise for bids on landscaping service. But no one seconded the motion, ending the debate.
“This looks terrible you guys,” said Town Clerk Darlene Butler. Canipe agreed, saying, “It does.”
“I’ve tried to avoid this, but it’s not easy sitting in this seat and not being accepted in this seat,” Mayor Harding said. “And I don’t know what else to do about it.”
With that, the meeting moved on.
Mayor Harding later told the News-Journal council needs to work together.
“I would like to see us all be able, when we disagree, to have a relationship to be able to agree to disagree and move forward with what’s best for the town of Spruce Pine,” she said.
Buchanan said he thinks the “entire council wants the best for Spruce Pine.”
Council’s next regular meeting is 5:30 p.m. Monday, May 23.