W. Curt Vincent and Erin Smith Staff writers
December 30, 2013
Editor’s note: The year 2013 was filled with important stories from throughout Bladen County, some of which even took on regional and statewide interest.
Over the past few weeks, the editorial staff has scoured the pages of the 104 newspapers published during the year in search of the biggest stories to impact the county. And from there, they were discussed and ranked into a list of the year’s top 15.
Obviously, this is a subjective list. They are strictly the opinion of the this newspaper’s staff. We understand, and hope you will as well, that certain stories carry greater importance to different people.
But the list being presented today, we think, is one that most will agree is filled with the biggest stories from 2013.
We hope you will enjoy looking back over the past 12 months. (WCV)
1. Municipal elections in Bladenboro
Folks in Bladenboro elected a new mayor and two new town council members after November’s municipal election and also voted for a change to the town’s charter. These developments have changed the landscape of the governance of Bladenboro.
Based on the official results following the vote canvassing, Rufus Duckworth III defeated incumbent Mayor Livingston Lewis by 46 votes. Duckworth received 264 votes to Lewis’ 218, and Ken Chavis was a distant third with just 56 votes. There were seven write-in votes cast in the race.
Two incumbent councilmen were voted off the board in November. They were Mitchell Hughes and Stephen Bryan. Hughes received 156 votes and Bryan received 191 votes.
The top three vote-getters who received their oaths of office in December were Jeff Atkinson, who received 366 votes; incumbent Billy Ray Benson, who received 287 votes; and Curtis Timothy Benton Jr., who received 284 votes.
Less than half of the registered voters in Bladenboro made the important decisions for who will lead the town in the future. There are about 1,256 registered voters in the town of Bladenboro, and about 550 of those cast their ballots in the election.
Duckworth also started a petition for a referendum to change the town’s form of governance from council-manager to council-mayor. The referendum won overwhelmingly, with 332 yes votes to 206 no. The town has operated under the council-manager form of government since Feb. 10, 2003.
Duckworth served for 18 years on the town’s planning board and also worked with the Christmas parade and the Boost the ‘Boro committees for numerous years.
Incumbent Mayor Livingston Lewis served as mayor of the town for 20 years.
Following the election results, the council voted at their next meeting to change the town’s charter and voted to hire former Town Manager Delane Jackson as town administrator, offering him a contract and a $31,000 severance package to the chagrin of the newly elected council members.
Jackson later was asked to resighn or was terminated — it remains unclear which — from his position as town administrator enacting the severance package, and Wes Johnson of the law firm Johnson & Johnson in Elizabethtown resigned as town attorney.
2. White Lake prison closes
The closure of the Bladen Correctional Facility located at White Lake left municipalities and the county scrambling to figure out how to cope with the loss of the inmate labor supply.
The budget bill adopted by the N.C. General Assembly called for the facility’s closure by October. State Rep. William Brisson voted against the budget measure while N.C. Sen. Bill Rabon voted in favor of the bill. Rep. Brisson and Sen. Rabon both represent Bladen County in their respective legislative bodies.
Brisson, who fought to stave off the closure, said he got no cooperation from members of the N.C. Senate.
Brisson said the House version of the budget bill funded the prison and kept it open another year, while the Senate version called for its closure.
Brisson said that having the inmates working at various places in the county helps them to see that there is a better way of life.
The facility had 52 employees and an annual operating budget of $2.5 million, according to Keith Acree, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety. According to budget documents, the Bladen Correctional Facility is not the only one in the region that was closed. Other sites slated for closure include the Robeson Correctional Center, Duplin Correctional Center, Wayne Correctional Center, Western Youth Institution, and Johnston Correctional Center.
Bladen County Manager Greg Martin said the loss of the inmate labor would hurt as the county utilized about 14 inmates.
Martin said the inmates provide such services as helping with the recycling program, grounds maintenance for the solid waste sites, and assist parks and recreation with such things as mowing.
For the town of Elizabethtown, that spells the loss of about eight inmates who are utilized by the town on a regular basis, said Elizabethtown Town Manager Eddie Madden. To replace those eight inmates with paid employees would cost the town about $280,000 — or $35,000 per person, which would include salary and benefits, according to Madden.
3. Abbey Walters is Female Athlete of the Year
Abbey Walters, a three-sports star from West Bladen High, was named the Mountaire Farms/Civitas Media Female Scholar Athlete of the Year for the Bladen, Robeson and Scotland counties region during the 2012-13 school year.
Walters, who graduated in June, was a stellar athlete in volleyball and basket, but garnered much of her accolades as a softball player with the Lady Knights.
In addition to being one of the state’s top pitchers and hitters, Walters was also one of West Bladen’s top students. She graduated No. 7 in her class with a 4.3 GPA.
During her senior softball season, Walters hot .609 with 14 home runs (good for No. 1 in the state) and was 11-2 as a pitcher.
Walters has gone on to play collegiate softball for Southeastern Community College in Whiteville.
4. The Front Porch restaurant closes
The Front Porch Restaurant, an Elizabethtown icon that has been open since the summer of 1986, closed it’s doors suddenly and for good in late October.
“It was a tough decision, but one that’s been coming for a few years,” said Robin Summerlin, owner of the restaurant and catering service. “Food costs and labor costs have kept us from being able to make a profit over the past four or five years — but it really hasn’t ever been easy.”
The Front Porch employed 30 people.
Summerlin added that, over the 27 years in business, the Front Porch has been a part of numerous celebrations.
“We’ve been part of a lot of weddings, birthdays and other special events,” he said, “and we’ve been able to make a lot of friends along the way.
Reaction around town has been mixed with shock and sadness.
“The Front Porch is widely known across the state and it has made a tremendous impact on Elizabethtown for more than 20 years,” said Elizabethtown Town Manager Eddie Madden. “We wish Robin and his family the best in the future and we thank him and his dedicated employees for making the Front Porch the success it has been.”
The Front Porch is the third restaurant Elizabethtown lost during the year, joining Bella Roma and the Riverside Grill.
5. CSX train derails in Bladenboro
Nearly 300 residents near downtown Bladenboro were evacuated late in the afternoon on Saturday, Feb. 2, when a 109-car CSX freight train derailed on a trestle.
Nine cars derailed from the train, four of which were classified as carrying hazardous materials. One of those cars was filled with liquid ammonia used in fertilizer, but was not leaking.
The train was en route from Hamlet to Wilmington.
The evacuations took place from Village Street to Seaboard Street. About 30 people were taken to Bladenboro Middle School, while more than 200 others stayed with family or friends.
According to the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, the train was crossing a trestle that spanned a swampy area near downtown Bladenboro when the trestle apparently gave way. Nobody was reported injured in the accident.
The derailment brought a hazmat team from Fayetteville Fire Department to the site, along with officials from North Carolina Emergency Management.
6. Delane Jackson terminated
Town Administrator Delane Jackson left his position with the town of Bladenboro on Dec. 9, but the circumstances surrounding his removal are still a little muddled— primarily because of the wording of several sections in his contract.
According to information from Mayor Livingston Lewis and Jackson, an offer was made by the town council as a whole, with Lewis as their spokesman, for Jackson to resign.
Lewis said the decision to offer Jackson the chance to resign was made during a series of telephone calls with town board members, after which a letter was sent to Jackson from Lewis.
In his letter, Lewis stated: After consultation with the Board of Commissioners the Town of Bladenboro, a majority of them believe that it would be in the best interest of you and the town for you to resign. As Mayor, and as a representative of the board, I am hereby delivering this offer for you to accept resignation. In order to allow you time to remove your personal belongings from Town Hall the resignation can be effective at noon Friday December 6, 2013. In accordance with your contract, you will be immediately paid your severance package along with all other benefits accrued vacation pay and longevity pay.
Jackson sent Lewis a return letter, resigning his position with the town.
“We actually spoke with all five of the council members … they all agreed,” said Lewis. “I did not ask him to resign. It was not asked so that I could pay him (his severance package).”
Lewis said even though Jackson did resign, his severance package covered in his contract will still be triggered. The severance package includes six months salary and accrued vacation time. Lewis said that Jackson has been paid his severance in the amount of $31,000 and the money is already in the town’s budget. According to Lewis, there will be no required budget amendment to cover the severance pay.
According to Jackson’s contract, written and put into place on Nov. 25 by a 4-2 vote, a resignation clause states: “In the event that the Employee voluntarily resigns his position with the Employer, the Employee shall provide a minimum of 30 days notice unless the parties agree otherwise.”
The mayor and town council, however, accepted the resignation immediately.
Despite the fact that he was given a choice, Jackson said he is not looking at this as a voluntary resignation, which removes the 30-day stipulation in the contract.
“I’ve been terminated, which the contract allows,” he said.
Under the “termination” portion of the contract, it is defined as: “The majority of the governing body votes to terminate the Employee at a duly authorized public meeting.”
7. Military academy opens
Bladen County saw the opening of the first-ever military charter school in North Carolina.
The academy is a charter school that is housed in the Paul R. Brown Building located on Martin Luther King Drive in Elizabethtown. The school is currently conducting classes in the former School of Extended Hope while renovations are being made to the Paul R. Brown building.
The agreement calls for the Leadership Academy to pay the Board of Education $1,500 per month and will be effective for the period between Aug. 1 and July 30, 2014, said Newton. The Leadership Academy is also responsible for all upkeep and maintenance of the facility during the duration of the lease.
The school currently offers sixth through the 10th grades and will add a grade each year until it eventually will serve grades 6-12.
Cadets at the school are expected to report incidents on campus to their teachers or to Commandant of Cadets Carl Lloyd. they learn things such as how to make eye contact with people, how to shine their shoes properly, and proper etiquette.
He also said there is a Saturday study session for those who have failed a course or need extra help with their studies.
8. Knights make football playoffs
Coming into the 2013 gridiron season, the Knights were looking at their third head coach and third offensive system in three seasons.
But first-year head coach Russell Dove shaped and molded West Bladen into a team that believed in itself and accomplished several firsts — including the first conference win since 2011 and first state playoff appearance in six years.
Also, the Knights’ 5-7 record this past season represents more wins than West Bladen had accumulated over the previous three seasons combined.
“It’s hard to say I’m not pleased,” said Dove, “because these kids really accomplished a lot between last season and this one. Certainly 5-7 isn’t where we wanted to be, but it does show that we’re moving in the right direction.
“(The players) had gotten used to hearing students and people in the community ask if they were ever going to win a game,” Dove added. “That can weigh heavily on anyone. But now there’s a new feeling of pride in the school and there’s been more support from the community as a whole.”
9. Bladen County Relay For Life success
Bladen County Relay for Life had a successful campaign in 2013, raising $127,000 for cancer research — far surpassing the goal of $95,000.
Bladen County’s residents, businesses and corporate citizens made Relay a success in 2013 and organizers are looking for another blow out year in 2014.
At the 2014 Relay for Life Kick Off event, Event Chairperson Michelle Fisher said, “I want to say thank-you to each survivor for being here tonight. You are our inspiration. You are here with us because you are a champion.”
10. Empty Stocking Fund success
After its usual slow start, the Bladen Journal’s annual Empty Stocking Fund took off — with more than $1,000 from three groups at Danaher, $1,200 from the Classic Cruiser’s Car Club, $850 from Elizabethtown Christian Academy’s students and staff, $1,500 from Trinity Methodist men’s Club, $3,024 from STAR Telephone employees, an anonymous $1,000 donation and an anonymous $3,500 donation.
For the first time in several years, the effort not only topped the $7,000 mark and reached the goal of $7,500 … but it went past the $13,000 mark all the way to $13,419.91.
That allowed the Bladen Journal to assist more than 200 Bladen County children, representing more than 90 families, with a merrier Christmas. Not only were gift cards to Leinwand’s and Walmart handed out, but numerous Bladen County Schools students were given hygiene kits through an Empty Stocking Fund donation.
11. U.S. Rep. McIntyre moves office
Congressman Mike McIntyre, a Democrat and member of the Blue Dog Coalition who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1997, saw his 7th Congressional District get redrawn recently when Republicans took over control of North Carolina.
With much of his former district — including most of his hometown of Lumberton — being redrawn into the 8th Congressional District, McIntyre moved his local office from Lumberton to downtown Elizabethtown. That office is now located on South Poplar Street (U.S. 701 South) next to Alan Maynard’s Law Office.
McIntyre’s district, which includes Bladen County and a small portion of Robeson County, stretches from New Hanover County through Sampson, Duplin and Johnston counties — all the way to the southern edge of Raleigh.
12. Clarkton FD arrests
An investigation into potential wrongdoing at the Clarkton Volunteer Fire Department netted the arrest of former Fire Chief Allen Robinson and former Deputy Chief Joshua Simmons.
The Bladen County Sheriff’s Office was assisted by the SBI, the Department of Insurance, the Elizabethtown Police Department and the White Lake Police Department in executing the search warrant.
Robinson and Simmons were indicted by a Bladen County Grand Jury on Aug. 5.
Simmons is charged with felony conspiracy and Robinson is charged with two counts of insurance fraud, five counts of embezzlement, and two counts of corporate malfeasance.
The pair are alleged to have cut the pump off one of the department’s fire trucks in 2012 and reported it as stolen to the insurance company. According to reports, the pump was valued at about $13,000. It is also alleged that in 2010, Robinson reported several air tanks as missing when they were actually in use at the fire department.
Robinson is also alleged to have misappropriated funds.
13. Toni Warrick leaves West Bladen
After five semesters at West Bladen High, Principal Toni Warrick resigned her position effective Dec. 17.
Warrick accepted a position as human resources director with Chatham County/Savannah (Ga.) Public Schools.
“It’s a bitter-sweet feeling,” Warrick said. “I’ll certainly miss the kids a lot, as well as the people I’ve worked with here.”
Warrick came to West Bladen as the lead Knights prior to the 2011-12 school year and made an immediate impact.
“I think I’ve helped to change the culture for the better here,” she said. “I think the school has excelled since I’ve been here, but that’s more because of the students and staff … not me.
“Everyone here is given the same chances and opportunities,” she added.
Warrick came to West Bladen after serving as the lead assistant vice principal at Jack Britt High in Fayetteville.
14. East Bladen retires jersey
Former East Bladen High star Tyrell Godwin had his No. 21 baseball jersey retired on Nov. 8 during halftime of the East Bladen versus West Bladen football game.
Godwin’s high-school baseball coach, Russell Priest, presented the former Eagles star with his framed, retired jersey.
Godwin was the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s Athlete of the Year for the 1996-97 school year.
After high school, Godwin played both football and baseball collegiately while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the prestigious Morehead Scholarship.
Godwin was drafted by the New York Yankees in 1997 and the Texas Rangers in 2000 but did not sign with either team. He eventually signed with the Toronto Blue Jays after being drafted in the 3rd round (91st overall) of the 2001 amateur draft. He played in the Blue Jays’ minor league system for four years before the Nationals selected him in the Rule 5 Draft.
Godwin played in three games for the Nationals during the 2005 season, and continued to play in the minor leagues until 2007.
15. Rodney Hester tabbed chief deputy
Capt. Rodney Hester was tabbed as chief deputy following the retirement of Herman Dunn from the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 8.
Hester served three years as captain for the Sheriff’s Office — and, as such, handled a majority of the public information duties. He continues to handle the public information duties for the Sheriff’s Office.