By Beth Lawrence
There are still rumblings among Jackson County Republicans looking to fix what they see as a problem with county Commissioner Mickey Luker.
Residents from District 4 want Luker replaced because he does not attend commissioners meetings, and they feel they are not being properly represented. They now want attendance at meetings to be mandatory.
Luker has attended 12 board meetings through conference calls and been physically present at only seven of the 43 meetings held in 2019.
At the Oct. 15 regular meeting, which Luker participated in by phone, a number of residents from southern Jackson County spoke to the board during the public comments portion of the session. They called for Luker to be removed through the process of amotion, the legal procedure of relieving a person of an office or position before the end of their term.
The commissioners did not take any action in open session, neither did they discuss the issue in the closed session following the regular meeting, Board Chair Brian McMahan said.
In the two weeks since the Oct. 15 meeting, some of the parties embroiled in the tumult over Luker’s absences say they have still not heard from him.
Luker was absent from the board’s Tuesday meeting and did not phone in.
The commissioner’s reluctance to tackle an amotion hearing has led some in the party to suggest the county institute an attendance policy that would require Luker to be physically present at meetings.
Republican Party Vice Chair Ralph Slaughter favors such a policy.
“I think that would be a great, great idea,” Slaughter said. “It is not a partisan issue. I know I get comments from both Democrats and Republicans that it should not be this way and there should be something stating the number of hours.”
McMahan does not think setting an attendance policy would accomplish the Republican goal of replacing Luker
“Even with an attendance policy, it would not create a situation where we could remove someone from office,” McMahan said. “It’s a self-imposed policy. It has no bearing on the ability to remove somebody.”
McMahan is right, according to a blog post by Frayda Bluestein, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Government.
“There is no legal requirement or authority for excusing board members from attending meetings,” Bluestein wrote. “There are statutes that provide for temporary or long-term transfer of the power to preside over meetings in cases of short- or long-term absence of the mayor or chair … None of these statutes, however, allow for the removal of the board member, and they don’t distinguish between excused or unexcused absences.”
State statutes do not have a minimum attendance standard, Bluestein said.
A board can legally create an attendance policy, for example asking members to call ahead to let the clerk know they will not attend. The policy can avoid the confusion of holding meetings when a quorum is not reached and allow meetings to be rescheduled when there are not enough members available to take action.
“Some boards may even vote on or classify absences as excused or unexcused,” Bluestein said. “These steps have practical, but not legal, effects. There is no general legal standard for what would constitute an ‘excused’ absence, as opposed to some other kind. There is, in fact, no legal difference between an excused and an unexcused absence. More importantly, there is no legal penalty for excessive absences, whether excused or unexcused.”
The only action a board could take to address excessive absences is passing a resolution of censure, a formal reprimand stating their disapproval and creating a written account of the issue.
However, censure has no legal teeth, Bluestein said.
It simply gives the board a recourse to express its concerns over an issue.
Slaughter is also upset about the issue of the financial compensation commissioners receive for their service.
Commissioners receive $12,164.41 per year, and the board chair is compensated $17,096.51. Reimbursement for special meetings is paid at a rate of $75 per meeting.
Board members are also compensated $100 per paycheck for travel expenses and “the use of their vehicle,” McMahan said.
Commissioners are paid twice a month.
It is, in part, the travel stipend that Slaughter is upset about.
He claims Luker is collecting this money and his commissioners salary while not showing up for meetings.
“I don’t know why he should get the two hundred and something, unless his phone bill is that much,” Slaughter said. “Brian (McMahan) made the point, what if he was sick and couldn’t attend? Should he still be paid? Common sense tells you he should.”
He went on to say, if illness is the cause of Luker’s absences, he should make it known to his constituents and the board.
Slaughter asked the board at the recent meeting if Luker was indeed collecting the stipend.
“You can answer that some other time,” Slaughter said. “I would still like to see a decision made on Mr. Luker.”
With regard to Luker’s compensation as a commissioner, there is not much the board can do at this point in the year according to information in Bluestein’s post.
A board cannot deny payment of compensation for absences, but it can create a structure to reward attendance.
However, the amount of compensation must be set during budget negotiations and cannot be changed midyear, according to the general statutes 153A-28 and 160A-64.
“One option is to compensate members in whole or in part on a per meeting basis, with no payment for missed meetings,” Bluestein said. “It is important to note, however, that the statutes limit the board’s ability to reduce pay for elected officials during the fiscal year. A change in the method of payment would likely have to be made for all board members and would have to be approved when the budget is adopted.”