In a pointed statement emailed to reporters this afternoon, Wake County commissioners Jessica Holmes, Greg Ford, and James West took aim at colleagues Matt Calabria, Sig Hutchinson, John Burns, and Erv Portman over a “private event” being held at the “Crooked Creek Golf Clubhouse.”
“Transitioning the now-defunct golf course into a county park was the source of a contentious 4–3 vote this past fall
that could result in a $24 million expenditure of taxpayer dollars,” the statement reads. “The purpose of the campaign event, according to social media posts, is to ‘support the elected officials who support this project.’ Several citizens brought this event to our attention and expressed concerns about the appearance of a ‘pay-to-play’ arrangement, or at the very least the perception of a legitimate conflict of interest.
“Social media posts encouraged the Crooked Creek community to support the campaigns of those who voted in favor of the project to ensure their ‘yes’ vote directly benefiting their community by enhancing their property values,” the statement continues. “There is a disturbing implication that voters can or should change their political party affiliations in order to vote in the Democratic primary.”
In November, Calabria, Hutchinson, Burns, and Portman voted to turn the former course in Fuquay-Varina—which has not been a golf course for eight years—into a park, following a public hearing in which some two hundred people showed up in support of such a move. The decision was contentious, however, because critics alleged that that money could have been better spent on school funding, as well as mental health, affordable housing, and other pressing needs.
The statement also alleges that the process was skewed and that the Crooked Creek neighbors got preferential treatment.
“Inappropriately,” it says, “there was a lack of information shared with us regarding the Crooked Creek Golf Course from the very beginning of the process. We were unaware that commissioners were working directly with Crooked Creek residents and county staff until the item was placed on the Board’s agenda after almost a year of correspondence with the community. The County’s normal process was not followed and therefore staff time and resources were diverted from Board priorities long before the project was discussed at the Board table or made known to the general public or us.”
Finally, the statement alleges that “there have been specific requests to keep the Crooked Creek project off the agenda for a final vote until after the primary so as to avoid potential political consequences.”
Ford and West could not immediately be reached for comment, though Ford did send the following snapshot of a Facebook post in a follow-up message.
Holmes says she will “let the statement speak for itself.”
The four commissioners who are being criticized tell the INDY
that they’ve done nothing untoward. They say they are merely trying to rally supporters ahead of an election the way politicians always do. Hutchinson and Calabria point out that this event, which is still being planned, isn’t a fundraiser but rather a get-out-the-vote effort. And, they say, there’s nothing insidious about politicians asking unaffiliated supporters to ask for a Democratic ballot or for Republican voters to switch parties to vote for them. That’s just politics.
Portman called the issue “much ado about nothing” and “a comment on the folks that lost the vote who continue to litigate the decision. I find it entirely appropriate for citizens to support elected officials who support causes they think are important.”
Portman told the INDY
he is in New York for his grandson’s baptism and, while he’s heard some discussion about an event, it hasn’t happened yet and he doesn’t know when it will. He says in his decade in public service—he was on the Cary Town Council from 2007–11 and the Wake County Commission from 2011–12 and 2016–now—he’s never seen one set of commissioners go after each other like this.
“A good board does its homework and makes its decision and moves on,” he says. “It’s amateur, in my opinion.”
Burns vigorously defended the decision on its merits, pointing out that the county hasn’t approved a $24 million expenditure but instead voted to purchase the land after conditions are met, a $4.5 million payment. As with any park, there will be expenses to develop it that come later, but this is 160 acres of open land that connects to greenways, will have a school on site, is adjacent to one hundred acres of wetlands, and will feature a gathering places for residents with autism under the auspices of the nonprofit 3 Irish Jewels, supporters say.
“This is a great project,” says Hutchinson. “It’s no more a golf course than the American Tobacco Trail is a railroad.”
They also pushed back against the allegations of unethical behavior. Calabria says that, far from some commissioners being kept in the dark, “this process has been talked about more than any other issue.” In fact, he says, it was a campaign issue when he ran in 2013 and 2014.
“When someone doesn’t have arguments on the merits,” he adds, “they often attack the process.”
Calabria, who lives about a mile and a half from the golf course, also denies that he had any conflict of interest in voting for it, as was suggested on social media during the first vote in November. That park, he says, won’t benefit his property values, he says. And even if that weren’t the case, he believes the park would benefit the general public rather than just him, which he says means that he should vote on it.
Hutchinson also rejects the notion that there have been efforts to keep the final vote on the park off the ballot until after the primary for political purposes, as the statement says. While, at a recent agenda meeting, he did ask to push the final vote back, it wasn’t because he was scared of the primary. Instead, he says, it was because all of the conditions the county set out in November when it first voted to buy the land had not yet been met. So, in his view, why take up such a heated issue at a sensitive time when the county’s not really ready to act?
As Burns puts it, “There’s no need to throw a politically divisive bomb into April if we can’t purchase the property in April.”
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
See related PDF