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April 29, 2013

Princeville terminates attorney Watts

Recess meeting reconvenes without mayor, mayor pro tem

TARBORO — With two board members absent, Princeville's  board of commissioners on Friday fired town attorney Charles "Chuck" Watts Jr., during the town's reconvened meeting that was recessed a week ago.

When the commissioners returned from a closed session, Commissioner Calvin Sherrod, who presided over the meeting, made the motion to terminate Watts with the stipulation of giving him two month's retainer. Commissioners Ann Howell and Gwen Knight voted for the measure. Mayor Priscilla Everette-Oates and Mayor Pro Tem Isabelle Purvis-Andrews did not attend the meeting.

 After an investigative report revealed Watts was earning significantly more money than attorneys representing other towns of comparable size to Princeville, the majority of the board began questioning the town's financial obligation to Watts in light of its current financial situation.

Documentation obtained from the Fiscal Management Section indicates that North Carolina towns of approximately the same population as Princeville have median legal fees of $12,125.

The report, made by the N.C. State Auditor, revealed that Princeville budgeted $36,000 for legal fees in fiscal year 2011, but paid Watts $79,215. The report states, according to information received from the attorney, approximately $24,125 (30.4 percent) of that year’s legal fees were incurred to defend against Commissioner Knight's suit to recover a fine of $450 (three months of stipends) imposed by the board for an alleged violation of its “anti-disruption” policy.

Watts had drawn even more criticism from the majority of the board because of a letter he had written to the state auditor in response to the investigative report.  Sherrod, Howell and Knight voted against authorizing Watt's letter and its details have not been released.

Citing confidentiality of a personnel matter, neither Sherrod, Howell or Knight would comment on why Watts was fired.

The termination was the second for the Durham-based attorney who was first hired by the town in February 2010. With the same margin of votes and by the same commissioners, Watts was terminated in July 2011 and then rehired in January 2012 to replace Ward & Smith P.A., a firm that has five offices in Eastern North Carolina.

In another matter dealing with attorneys, the board voted to pay Ward & Smith P.A. and also former attorney Anthony Flanagan, for past services. Although the board voted on paying the attorneys, the payments must be approved by the Local Government Commission.

The board also unanimously approved to hire a maintenance worker, a clerk and to promote police officer Herbert Vines, Jr.  to corporal.

Completing the recessed meeting was a high priority for Sherrod. Sherrod expressed his dissatisfaction to the regularly scheduled meeting that was held April 22 when the mayor called a recess because she said Knight was out of order. She asked that Knight be removed and called for a five-minute recess.

After about 30 minutes had passed and the mayor and Purvis-Andrews were still absent from the board room, commissioners Sherrod, Howell and Knight called the meeting back in order and immediately recessed it.

"We're going to have to stop bickering and get this town on the ball," Sherrod said. "We made good progress today. We passed everything that needed to be passed. I think if we had another truckload, we would pass that, too.

"We should have done this the other night,  but we didn't have time. I hate that  we had to bring y'all out today just to pass these issues."

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