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State Treasurer and CFCC Trustee want county’s removal of Jimmy Hopkins rescinded

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The county is facing blowback from the removal of CFCC Trustee Jimmy Hopkins. Now Hopkins says he hopes the county commission will do the “right thing” but if the matter needs to go to court he seems prepared to take it there.

“I'll be shocked if I get a call saying, ‘Okay, we made a mistake.’ So I think I probably will have to go a little further. But I'm willing to go further,” Hopkins said.

He said he is consulting with legal counsel on next steps. He also said he plans on attending the November CFCC Board of Trustee meeting — as a member.

When Jimmy Hopkins, a Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees member, was abruptly removed in September the from the position he’d held for over a decade, it came as a surprise. Hopkins had served on the board for more than a decade and the move caught him off guard.

Now, one of his fellow trustees, Ray Funderburk, said New Hanover County Commissioner Julia Olson-Boseman’s move to vacate his position doesn’t line up with the board’s bylaws.

“As I understand, from your recent letter, Ms. Julia Boseman [sic], Chair of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, wrote a letter to the CFCC Board of Trustees in which she stated she was removing Trustee Jimmy Hopkins as a Trustee for missing three consecutive meetings. I took the time to read our by-laws, and I can find no justification for Ms. Boseman’s removal of Mr. Hopkins,” Funderburk said in an email to fellow trustees.

Editor's note: Right now, no responses to Funderburk’s request have been made public.

He’s not the only one challenging the county’s actions.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell serves on the State Board of Community Colleges, and he has questions about Hopkins’ removal.

“I hope that the board chair and or the county commission, whoever made this decision, and the president of community college will rescind the termination of that person's boardship because I can tell you, there's going to be a lot of sunshine on who actually keeps the records of people who are attending meetings, whether unexcused or excused absences,'' Folwell said.

Hopkins attested to the fact that he never had an absence that was unexcused.

“I think it's important that people know that I didn't just blow off meetings.[...]. That never happened, so I want to be very clear: there were no unexcused absences. Period,” he said.

Purchasing the former Bank of America building

Early last month Hopkins was informed about a proposed deal CFCC is considering requesting New Hanover County Commissioners approve the purchase of the former Bank of America building on Third Street in Wilmington for $11.87 million.

The public only found out about the proposed deal last week. Then, this Monday, County Commissioners voted to approve that purchase citing the need for nurses in the community. Despite not having any appraisal on the property, they moved forward with the purchase.

County Manager Chris Coudriet told Commissioner Rob Zapple, who asked about the appraised value, the county is using the tax value of the property as its price point. There are still several steps that will have to take place before the purchase is complete, but commissioners all showed support for the purchase despite the concerns of others.

"We appreciate the commissioners' vision for this building and their support to expand the capacity of our nursing and health and human services programs. This investment will result in a generational change for our region, relieve strained health care facilities, and provide rewarding career opportunities for CFCC students," Jim Morton, CFCC president, said in a press release Monday evening.

The college’s statement stressed the importance of the purchase of the building to improve the college’s ability to grow.

The building, “…consists of 1.92 acres and a 5-story, 55,000-square-foot building to expand the college's nursing and health science programs,” according to the press release.

According to Hopkins, his removal from the board coincided with a disagreement he had with CFCC President Jim Morton.

“On September 9, I had a call from President Morton on a facilities matter, and it was the nursing facility. And he pretty much tells me it has been done and asked me to get the county commissioners that I know to support the process. And I was shocked that at the time, I was chair of the Facilities Committee, that I knew nothing about it. And he was quite upset that that kind of commitment was made without full board knowledge and participation,” Hopkins said.

Folwell, too, has concerns over the purchase of the building.

“I became aware of this transaction last week, and it's very important for me to say that the Local Government Commission (LGC) is spending an inordinate amount of time with issues related to New Hanover County these days. And all the LGC has ever been interested in on any transaction, in any part of the state of North Carolina, is transparency, competence, and good governance. And that's all that we really require,” Folwell said.

Hopkins said he was taken aback when he found out the college was moving forward with such a major request.

“I have no knowledge other than a phone call with President Morton telling me that was under contract. And at the time, he didn't tell me there was a third party involved. [...] But this goes back to lack of transparency, even if it's legitimate, even if there's nothing wrong with it, the lack of transparency puts doubt in people's minds,” he said.

Folwell added that if the county decides to finance the nursing facility, then it will have to go through the LGC for approval.

And according to Folwell, since New Hanover County has one of the best credit scores in the nation, they don’t need to “overcomplicate” their transactions.

“First was with the Government Center, and they wanted it to be a 3P [public-private] partnership, and we [LGC] showed them that they could just issue bonds and save $21 million in interest. And then, we've been dealing with Project Grace. And I'm told by folks in the Wilmington area that you learned more about [the project during] the [LGC] meeting than you learned in the whole previous four years. It shouldn't be that way when you're the keeper of New Hanover County's public purse, or the community college public purse,” Folwell said.

The proposal for the purchase is unique compared to other purchase agreements since the property is already under contract by an LLC that will now transfer the contract to New Hanover County.

Hopkins’ abrupt removal

On September 26, New Hanover County sent a letter to Hopkins on behalf of Olson-Boseman removing Hopkins immediately due to missing more than three meetings. Hopkins admittedly has missed multiple meetings in the past but said he thought all of his absences were excused since they were due to outside circumstances and he notified the board, through Michelle Lee, Executive Director of the President’s Office, who also serves as recording secretary for the board.

There are questions as to the legality of Olson-Boseman’s removal of a trustee since the Board of Trustees is created by state statute, specifically G.S. 115-D which explains that each community college is required to create a board of trustees.

Unlike a board that is not required under state law — like a Parks and Recreation Board — county commissioners do not have sole authority over the board even if they are responsible for appointing members. Hopkins is one of the four county-appointed members of the Board of Trustees.

State law outlines how members of a board of trustees can be removed — nowhere in the law does the General Assembly give that power to a county board of commissioners.

“A board of trustees may declare vacant the office of a member who does not attend three consecutive, scheduled meetings without justifiable excuse,” the law reads in part.

Despite the law, New Hanover County maintains commissioners have the ability to remove a member of any board that they have appointed members to due to a policy signed several years ago.

“State law governs the state board’s oversight of the community college board of trustees, but the Board of Commissioners has local authority over the county-appointed members of boards, commissions, committees and authorities. Based on the Board of Commissioners’ boards and committees policy (you can view that here), the Board of Commissioners can remove any county-appointed member,” according to a New Hanover County statement.

However, simply approving a policy does not mean the county has the authority to supersede state law and Funderburk, Folwell, and Hopkins have their doubts.

That’s a point that Funderburk wants the rest of the Board of Trustees to consider.

“Nothing in the By-Laws gives the appointing body power to remove a Trustee. The Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees did not declare the vacant Mr. Hopkins office. As a public body, we should be scrupulous in observation of our by-laws. Mr. Hopkins may indeed warrant removal from the board of trustees, but that removal should follow the policy and procedure detailed in our by-laws,” Funderburk wrote.

Funderburk said that Chair Bill Cherry responded to his concern by saying that the county commission removed Hopkins due to their policy and procedures. However, Funderburk is unaware if they did this through a vote or not. He said he was informed that Hopkins had been removed after the fact.

Funderburk also said there is no formal process that trustees undergo to receive an excused versus an unexcused absence. All he knows is that if a trustee is absent, they would respectfully inform Lee.

“There are [four] different bodies that appoint trustees, [New Hanover and Pender County] commissioners, the [New Hanover County] school board, and the governor. Those are all political entities. Once the trustees are on the board, the board should control its membership, not political bodies that change just about every election,” said Funderburk.

The process for removing board members appointed to boards with fixed term limits is something that the UNC School of Government has weighed in on — as have courts.

“When it comes to simply removing someone from the office (as opposed to eliminating the office itself), the general rule is that if a law provides that the person is appointed for a term, then the person may be removed only for cause (that is – some evidence of failure or inability to adequately perform the duties of the office), and must be given notice, and an opportunity to be heard. Stephens v. Dowell, 208 N.C. 555 (1935), Freyda Bluestein, Professor of Public Law and Government for the UNC SOG wrote.

It’s unclear what prompted the proposed contract transfer to New Hanover County and Hopkins said he was blindsided by the decision.

“I didn't know until it was already done, whatever the deal is, I don't know how the college or the county is involved with if an individual has a contract on the building. Again, I don't know. To this day, I don't know how that involves the college, or the county commissioners buying it for the college,” Hopkins said.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR