Commissioner Hehn asks town to make Town Manager Ward pay him for lawyer fees

Before accepting the February Town Board agenda as written which was item #3 – Review and Approve the Agenda – Commissioner Marc Hehn asked to move item #15 – Request for Reimbursement for Attorney Fees – to executive session.

“It’s a personnel matter and I don’t want to embarrass anybody so I would like to discuss it in executive session. It’s about personnel performance and that’s what I want to discuss,” he said.

Mayor Pat Taylor disagreed.

“I think it’s a policy issue that can be discussed in open session,” he said.

When asked how the board wanted to proceed, Commissioner Amy Patterson said she first needed to know if it was an executive session issue.

“This is not personnel issue, it’s not a contract, it’s not attorney/client privilege so I would not be confident to say this would be proper for a closed session,” said Town Attorney Jay Coward. 

The vote was 4-1 with Commissioner Hehn dissenting, to not consider #15 in executive session.

When it was time to address #15, Mayor Taylor gave Commissioner Hehn the floor.

“Mr. Hehn, I know you didn’t want to address this in public but if you would like to make a comment you may at this time,” he said.

“Mr. Mayor it’s important that we look forward and not look backward, but there is a long history of me asking for documents. I ask politely and I either get them the night before or I write a letter and hire a lawyer who writes to threaten to sue Josh [Town Manager] personally. This has got to stop. but I predicted problems we were going to have and if I can’t be prepared, if I can’t get the documents everyone else has seen before I got here, I can’t do my job. I am just asking that Josh be asked to comply with the NC Public Records Act. That’s all I am asking,” said Hehn. 

In a letter written to Ward, Hehn said: “On three occasions I have requested public documents that you refused to provide until I had a lawyer present a demand letter. Enclosed please find invoices totaling $1,500. Please forward your personal check to reimburse me for these expenses. I would like to resolve this matter without embarrassment to the Town or any employee. My hope is that I will not be forced to incur such expenses going forward. If you choose to reimburse me, I request you place this on our February agenda.”

Hehn went on to say his wife was an elementary school counselor and there have to be consequences if you aren’t going to do what you are supposed to do.

“So, I have asked him personally to reimburse me. That’s his decision. I am not asking the town to do it. This has got to stop,” said Hehn.

The $1,500 is for professional services rendered by Attorney Richard Essex of Charlotte, NC including telephone calls, the production of letters and emails.

Mayor Taylor said both Town Manager Josh Ward and Finance Director Rebecca Shuler were prepared to challenge Hehn’s contention that they haven’t been providing documents – documents that are very extensive and require more time than immediate action. 

Mayor Taylor made his feelings on the matter crystal clear.

“What bothers me Commissioner Hehn is this idea, first that our Town Manager, who is a fine person who works within the confines of what we are doing in the town, that he would be sued personally over something like this is unacceptable to me. And the other thing that bothers me very much, is that you would want a personal financial transaction between you and him. We are going down a slippery slope when we start allowing that kind of business here in Highlands. We have never done it and I am not about to condone that type of behavior as mayor. 

“When I first heard this, I thought you were asking the board to reimburse you. But that’s not the case. You wanted him to personally do it. I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked when I heard this. That’s why I wanted to put this out to the public tonight because this just isn’t acceptable in my estimation. That’s not how we operate here. 

“And, if Josh had given you that money, it would be tantamount to him declaring that he has done something wrong and he has done nothing wrong. He might not work on your schedule, but our people have good faith. And you have asked them for document after document after document and they have jobs to do. And I am just going to tell you right now, we don’t operate this way. As elected officials in this town we don’t exchange personal checks in reimbursements; it all comes before the board,” he said.

What followed was a discussion instigated by Hehn to justify his need to request and see documents – in this case over the fiber project regarding Wide Open Networks and Hotwire – completely different lease models which would net the town different amounts of money. 

Even now Hehn is disputing the Hotwire contract despite the fact that a contract has been signed and the town is set to receive a profit of $10,200,000 over 25 years – far more than the town’s 15-year $4.6 million loan with interest it took out with BB&T to build the fiber highway.

Over two years, each time various aspects of the project were voted upon by the Town Board – Feb. 27, 2020, March 3, 2020, Dec. 17, 2020, Jan. 21, 2021 – Commissioner Hehn logged the one and only dissenting vote.

However, with the contract hammered out by Highlands’ and Hotwire’s attorneys, when presented at the Oct. 21, 2021 Town Board meeting, Hehn voted with his fellow board members to unanimously make Hotwire in charge of Highlands broadband highway.

Prior to going with Hotwire, the town had Wide Open Networks in its sights. However, negotiations for a 10-year contract with far less profit for the town – about $2,820,000 – fell apart when Wide Open realized there would be more providers on the highway.

At last Thursday’s meeting, Hehn suggested it was his probing that caused the town to go with Hotwire and not Wide Open Networks.

“I did not feel comfortable voting for that contract [Wide Open]. But by the good graces of God, they wrote us and said they were not aware there was another provider, and they were not going to be able to proceed,” said Hehn. “That was our lucky day, because I advocated that we should take proposals and we ended up with Hotwire.” 

The mayor and other commissioners were quick to remind Hehn that the comparison is apples to oranges with two completely different models.

Nonetheless, Hehn pursued trying to outline the times he requested documents concerning the fiber highway and according to him didn’t receive them.

“I asked to see the file and it took from March to November just to read the files,” he said.

Mayor Taylor said that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement for the board while formulating the Hotwire contract for good reason and therefore those documents weren’t available until after the contract was signed. 

“You know why I signed that agreement? Because if we shared with you documents for which we had non-disclosure agreements, we were very concerned there would be a breach of that non-disclosure agreement and to be quite frank, since we had had a breach of confidentiality between a lawyer involved with previous negotiations – and I think I know and you know who breached it – I was justified with having those concerns,” said the mayor.

Hehn continued to state his case.

“I am just trying to get Josh to comply with my requests. I ask for records and I just don’t get them. I want to be prepared,” he said. “When I asked him for the construction contract early in 2021, I didn’t get it until September. When I asked to see the last payment request, I didn’t get it and I know about contracts. That’s what I did, administration of construction contracts, so I have some knowledge about it, and I didn’t agree with them,” he said.

Mayor Taylor said he knew all about his dealings in Monks Corner in Berkley County.

At that point, Town Manager Ward requested the floor.

“Commissioner Hehn comes to us pretty regularly. No other board member does this. He requests stuff constantly. We try to do the best to our ability to give him what he needs, and it is everything. And at the last board meeting the board agreed to make him prints. Well, since then he came in five times. He went to Gibby – ‘I want this printed I want these minutes; I want this printed.’ He didn’t want to leave until he got them. We got what he wanted. 

“This fiber issue started with Wide Open. There was an issue with the agreement we signed with Wide Open. They said they didn’t want their financials given out so that had to be redacted [from the documents]. So finally, we got a document together, including Jay, Jay has been involved with all of this. Marc signed the nondisclosure, he met in the Mayor’s office; the Mayor let him see it, he reviewed it and that was that.

“Then let’s fast forward. Then he starts in with other documentation. Covid had just started so he didn’t want to come into the building. We took the file that Matt [IT Director] had and went outside. Mr. Hehn wanted to review it. He opened the file; he goes through the whole file. 45 minutes later I go out there and I asked, ‘is everything there?’ He said he looked through it and said, ‘I’m fine.’ 

“A while later, he said, ‘I want to see this. I want to see that.’ So, he went back in and sat down with Matt for over an hour and half. Questioned Matt over the same file. He went through the file. Questioned Matt back and forth; he reviewed all of it. Matt asked him if he wanted copies and he said no.

“He left. Then we get another letter. He wanted all this stuff from the Hotwire contract. OK. Well half of it we don’t have because we were going through a third-party administrator with the work not paid through the town of Highlands. This involved the construction of the fiber line. The third party is paid through our engineering firm. There was a bunch of financials he wanted so we turned it over to Rebecca [Financial Director]. Rebecca had to get everything out of the file, everything we had done, since the time this thing started. She got it out. She had a meeting with Marc. Marc came in. He reviewed everything. She had some copies for him, but he said he didn’t want them. So, he left. 

“A few weeks later we get another request. A month or so later we get another request. ‘I want to see these documents.’ Some different stuff. Rebecca went through and had to pull that stuff and it takes a while. We are trying to do our day-to-day jobs and accomplish that job while Mr. Hehn is requesting things. And I get emails, and calls. Rebecca got everything together. She had another meeting with him. He reviewed everything. She asked if he wanted copies. ‘No, I don’t want copies.’

“A month later he says, ‘I want these copies, or I want to review this, or I want to inspect or obtain.’ So, he came in and inspected everything and said he didn’t want copies and left. Then I get a letter from an attorney saying that he wants copies of all this – all the stuff he had already reviewed three times [and said he didn’t want copies]. But he wants it, and he wants it electronically and he wants it sent to him because he doesn’t want to come into town because of Covid. Rebecca and Matt put everything together that they could to send to him electronically, including a thumb drive because some of the documents were so large. It was set out front and Marc came and got it. 

“So, for him to sit here and say that staff has sat on their hind-end and ignored everything he requested is wrong. 

“And the thing is, I don’t know what you are looking for. I work for this town, and I work for the whole board, and I try to do the best to my ability. If you have a question and you want to question the decisions this board makes – because you haven’t agreed with the fiber contract from the word “go,” which is OK. You don’t have to agree with it – but why don’t you question them about the decisions they made before you came on the board and ask them about the documents that they approved, some of which you approved after you came on the board. Why do you always come through us? These people right here are who you need to talk to.”

Commissioner John Dotson put an end to the discussion.

“I certainly appreciate the fact that all this is being brought to light in a public forum, but the Town Board has no authority to compel our Town Manager to write a [personal] check to anybody for anything and I make a motion that we move on,” he said.

The vote was 4-1 to not request Town Manager Ward to write Commissioner Hehn a check for $1,500.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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