By Jennifer Allen, Coastal Review Online
Former Duck town manager Chris Layton worked his first day Tuesday as Plymouth’s interim town manager, a job that has seen its share of turnover.
Layton, who was Duck town manager for nearly 20 years, is filling the role vacated Jan. 15 by interim manager Arlene Willis. The town council, during its Jan. 11 regular meeting, voted unanimously in favor of Layton taking the position, which he accepted at that time and agreed to the terms. He officially began the position at 5 p.m. Jan. 15.
“I appreciate the opportunity,” Layton said during the meeting.
As previously reported, Layton resigned his position in Duck July 24, 2020, after being charged July 15, 2020, with two misdemeanor counts of assault on a female. The alleged victim is the spouse of an employee of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, which publishes Coastal Review Online. In October, the assault case against Layton was continued to Dec. 7, 2020. The trial is now set for April 8.
The Roanoke Beacon reported Wednesday that Mayor Pro tem Deborah Brooks said Layton had been up front with the town council about the charges against Layton but the charges didn’t affect its decision.
Layton is replacing Willis who was hired in July 2020 to serve as interim town manager. She replaced Matthew Livingston, who was interim town manager from April 2019 to March 2020 and is now manager for Ayden.
Willis during the Jan. 11 meeting said that Jan. 15 would be her last day and expressed her frustration with the work environment.
“Since I stepped foot on Plymouth soil, some of the constituents, town employees, business owners and the local newspaper — and some of our very own councilmen and women — have purposely tried to sabotage me and made my life here a living hell for absolutely no reason,” she said, adding she wanted to share the “inside story.”
She listed several of what she called “incidents” that took place during her tenure, one of which occurred on her first day. Willis said she was told there was an unsafe building at 101 and 103 Water St., “declared a disaster by our former code enforcer,” prompting her to close that section of the street, which she said was not an easy decision and was not well received.
Willis went on to say that she believed it was a hostile work environment that was “intentionally created for me by some of my very own town employees, and even some of the councilmen and women that sit right here on this council.”
Willis also raised the issue of her being previously fired in October for “no reason.” Willis was fired Oct. 19 by the council during a reconvened Oct. 12 board meeting and then rehired Oct. 22 during a special meeting.
“Some of the council members were very strategic and sneaky as to how they came up with the votes to fire me,” she said. “As most of you were asking why … most of the council couldn’t give you an answer, because there was no reason other than just working and getting my job done. And I might want to say, while being a Black, African American woman, let me not leave that out. I was not only falsely accused of some trumped up charges about 101 and 103 ( E. Water St.), but fired for no reason.”
Willis was referencing comments made earlier during that Jan. 11 meeting by Police Chief Willie Williams about a situation regarding the derelict building on Water Street, which she said led to the town trying to take disciplinary action on the two. She alleged that corruption was taking place in the town, based on comments made by Williams.
Willis also alleged that she had been harassed and threatened. “I have had messages saying watch your back,” she said during the meeting.
Willis said she was going to work with a state agency investigating fraud in the federal Payroll Protection Program COVID-19 relief loans.
“So I hope to see you back in here and Plymouth, in some way,” she said.
Fired, hired again
Near the end of a remote meeting Oct. 19, 2020, Councilwoman Mary Ann Byer requested to add to the agenda a discussion regarding Willis. Byer put forth a motion to terminate Willis’ employment with the town effective immediately. No reason was given for the termination but the motion was approved in a 3-2 vote. Willis was directed to turn in all town electronic devices and not to enter any town administrative spaces to collect her belongings unless prearranged with the town clerk.
When other council members questioned the motion, Byer said the “motion stands on its own. I have no comment.”
The council then approved another motion by Byer that Joanne Floyd, the town clerk at the time, would serve as interim manager.
A few days later on Oct. 22, 2020, the town board called a special meeting at the request of Councilwoman Kim Williams and Councilwoman Donsenia Teel.
During that meeting, Teel made a motion to rehire Willis as interim manager for 16 months, contract to be negotiated, effective immediately. The motion also directed Willis to receive the same salary and be reissued town electronic devices, keys and access to town facilities, including town hall.
After a 3-3 vote on the motion, Mayor Vershaum “Shawn” Hawkins voted yes to break the tie.
He addressed the board and public listening in on the Oct. 22 meeting held online, “Unfortunately, some of us that are on the council were left out of the loop with respect to a motion that was made on this past Monday’s meeting, and the request, or the motion, that was made to terminate our then-interim town manager Arlene Willis.”
Hawkins noted that the town for the last 20 years had experienced issues with the town manager position.
“And it’s not a matter of whether or not Willis was wrong or right, I think what was wrong, with respect to the termination, was the fact that at least Willis and/or individuals from the public were not privy to knowing why Ms. Willis was actually terminated,” he said. “And I think that we do owe anyone that works for the town of Plymouth, whether it be the town manager, our public works director, our assistant manager, I think that everyone deserves a right of knowing why they’re being released.”
He added that he would hate to have such a precedent set for the town and that the turnover was discouraging to anyone who might otherwise be interested in working for the town.
“I think the way in which it was done — it was done underhanded and it was not fair, again, to the public. It was not fair to Ms. Willis and it was not fair to the council members. So with that being said, I will be voting in favor of bringing Arlene Willis back on as our interim town manager,” he said.
Byer asked the town attorney whether the council needed to go back into closed session to discuss the motion to rehire Willis. “We’re talking about legal matters here,” she said. “There’s a lot of repercussions.”
Town attorney D. Cole Phelps resigned effective immediately Nov. 12, 2020, during a meeting that was reconvened from Nov. 9. Less than a week later Floyd, the town clerk, followed suit, although she committed to work a 30-day notice.
Floyd attempted to address the board at the Dec. 14 meeting during a discussion about a severance package for Willis.
“She made life hell for us,” Floyd said. “I mean, she was hard on us. You all need to listen to our side.”
The Roanoke Beacon reported Jan. 20 that Plymouth Police Chief Det. Frank Mitchell and Det. Sgt. Melissa Spence worked their final day Jan. 13. The newspaper reports that reasons for the detectives’ separation remained unclear and the town did not respond to Freedom of Information Act queries last week.
Mitchell and Spence both say they resigned because of “political and personal reasons …” according to the Roanoke Beacon.
Coastal Review Online reached out to the mayor, members of the council and staff but did not receive a response in time for publication of this report.