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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Former CFCC Trustee challenges board to take action instead of remaining complicit

CFCC Former Trustee Jimmy Hopkins
Rachel Keith
CFCC Former Trustee Jimmy Hopkins

Cape Fear Community College’s upper administration has long faced accusations of creating a retaliatory work environment for its employees — now allegations are coming from one of its former trustees: 11-year veteran Jimmy Hopkins. Hopkins spoke with WHQR and WECT about the legally dubious decision unilaterally made by New Hanover County Commissioner Julia Olson-Boseman to remove him, his decision not to challenge it in court, and his concerns that members of CFCC’s Board of Trustees “sit in silence, or to smile and nod” when faced with troubling issues.

Hopkins dropped his legal threats earlier this month. Although he initially cited the costly endeavor of suing a government body, Hopkins sat down for an interview and offered more details about what he says is a politically motivated attempt to silence a critic.

Background on Hopkins’ removal

On Sunday, October 16, 2022, Hopkins officially sent his resignation letter to CFCC Board Chair William "Bill" Cherry. The about-face came as a surprise to many because, just days prior, he had sent a letter to the county threatening legal action for what he, and others, say was an illegal attempt to remove him from the board.

Related: State Treasurer and CFCC Trustee want county’s removal of Jimmy Hopkins rescinded

Hopkins was removed from the board by New Hanover County Commission Chair Julia Olson-Boseman on September 26. She said he was removed due to “three unexcused absences,” despite CFCC spokesperson Sonya Johnson saying they don’t track whether absences are excused or not. Instead, attendance is simply kept as present or absent and recorded in the meeting minutes.

Further, North Carolina general statutes govern the Cape Fear Community College board. It states that a board of trustees may declare vacant the office of a member who does not attend three consecutive, scheduled meetings without justifiable excuse. In the statute, there is no mention of a county commission having the power to remove a community college trustee.

The only CFCC trustee who’s been outspoken about the board’s authority has been Ray Funderburk. He said the board isn’t following its own policies about a trustee’s removal. Regardless of his politics or opinions on Hopkins, Funderburk wanted more transparency in the process and for the board to follow their own bylaws outlined and agreed upon.

Hopkins, along with his former counsel Rountree Losee, LLC, maintains that this removal was “unlawful and of no effect.” But Hopkins ultimately said in his resignation letter he didn’t want the focus to be on him but on CFCC students and faculty and staff.

“I believe that light will always prevail over darkness, and eventually, the light of truth will prevail at CFCC,” he said.

Hopkins’ reasons for giving up the fight

WHQR and WECT secured an interview with Hopkins after his October 16 letter submitting his resignation to the chair.

Hopkins still believes that he and his former counsel would have won in court, but he made the calculation that ten of the CFCC board members, a majority, would have used their power in the statute to eventually remove him anyway.

According to Hopkins, he still doesn’t have clarity on his “unexcused absences” as alleged by Olson-Boseman. He said every meeting he didn’t attend, he received a message from Michelle Lee, executive director of CFCC President Jim Morton’s office and liaison to the board, saying things like, “hope you feel better,” “sorry you’re so busy at work,” and “love you.”

Asked how Olson-Boseman might have known that Hopkins was missing meetings, he said, “something had to be the catalyst to get the information to her.”

Hopkins added that he was treated unfairly by both the CFCC board and the commission when it came to recording his absences.

“The disparity between what they did to me and what they allow with others. I went back and looked at past county commission appointees who missed far more, [a] higher percentage than I did. So it just boggles my mind that anyone could believe anything other than this was motivated by wanting me off the board,” Hopkins said.

Meetings records don’t indicate that other trustees missed more than Hopkins; however, Hopkins is right about another trustee missing as many meetings as he did.

Bruce Moskowitz, who was reappointed by Governor Roy Governor in July, has missed eight meetings — the same number as Hopkins since January 2020. Moreover, Moskowitz missed three consecutive meetings in November 2020, January 2021, and March 2021 without any consequences.

Behind Moskowitz and Hopkins, Trustee Paula Sewell, also appointed by Cooper, has missed five meetings since January 2020.

While it’s perhaps not an apples-to-apples comparison, because the county has created its own policy for removing county appointees, Hopkins’ point is that, under CFCC’s bylaws, other members could have been removed – but haven’t been.

Hopkins said he still hasn’t heard from anyone at the county or the college; however, he did receive a letter from the chair thanking him for his service to CFCC after he submitted his resignation letter.

In his first week of retaining counsel, Hopkins spent just shy of $10,000.

“And at this point, it's kind of hypocritical for me to say I care about the college, and to keep spending money and money and money that could pay for someone's education, could buy books, food,” Hopkins said.

Ramifications of dropping the suit

Even if Hopkins had been removed from the board through the proper methods outlined in the bylaws and state law, his reversal of the legal action could set a precedent for future political removals by county commissioners.

Hopkins believes his removal was politically motivated and since his removal is no longer legally challenged, a judge will not rule on the legality of the commissioners' actions.

Without a judge’s order saying one way or the other, commissioners could theoretically take similar actions in the future against other board members. Since the county maintains they have the right to remove any appointee at any time, Hopkins’ removal could have a chilling effect on board members who have different political or ideological opinions.

The control of the board by commissioners is something that concerns Funderburk as well.

“I don't think the county should dictate to the trustees what to do. The trustees are a separate, independent body, they appoint them. But after that, the trustees are their own entity. The other problem that you might see in this is the trustees are at the mercy of the county commissioners when it comes to funding. And in this case, we have a new building that we're talking about. But we need to remain an independent body,” he said in a previous interview.

Hopkins also spoke further on the impetus behind his removal.

The “agitated” disagreement, as Hopkins described it, between him and CFCC President Jim Morton was over New Hanover County’s recent $12-million-dollar purchase of the former Bank of America building in order to expand the college’s nursing program.

“Obviously, I had a dissenting opinion, here I sit no longer a trustee,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins is a partner in American Coastal Development and a Broker/partner with RE/MAX Executive; while he was a trustee, he chaired the facilities committee. He denied that he had any desire to profit off of the Bank of America building deal. Ultimately, developer Brian Eckel, of Cape Fear Commercial, helped broker the purchase of the building with the county, with help from Novant Health, and the college.

“I don't know if it came from some of the trustees, or it came from the college that I was just peeved because I didn't get the deal. One, that's against the ethics code, I wouldn't have done it, couldn't have done it. If I had represented the college, it would have been pro bono and the college would have gotten the commission credited back to them. So I'll be very clear – [it] had nothing to do with sour grapes over who represented who, or who got the contract and represented the college,” Hopkins said.

He added that during the initial consultation with his legal team, one attorney said to Hopkins, “‘Are you willing to face any ramifications that may come?’ And then my business partner, Chris Dunn, said, ‘If the call is right, we're gonna fight. It's worth the fight.’ And now we're just choosing to do it other ways.”

Hopkins said the ‘gist’ of what Morton said when they had their disagreement was something to the effect that Hopkins didn’t have to worry about the logistics of the building. And that, “they didn’t want word to get out and disrupt the deal. [...] I think it’s insulting to the trustees that they wanted to keep it quiet.”

He maintains that Morton came to him too late – that the logistics had already been worked out. Hopkins wasn’t sure what was going on.

Specific questions Hopkins had about nursing building

Hopkins told Morton that there needed to be a process in place first.

“There'll be a discussion of needs and demand. Who's going to teach it to those new students? And how we're going to fund it?” [...] And what strings are tied to that paycheck?” Hopkins asked.

He then asked Morton, “Have we looked at other options?” The answer was, ‘No,’ according to Hopkins.

After this line of questioning, Hopkins said he felt uncomfortable that there were no plans for anything associated with the building.

While he maintains that the health sciences program needs a dedicated space, he said, “ …the college owns a ton of land on the North Campus. Did we look at the cost of building, as opposed to buying a building for what, $11.9 million, and then spending $14.5 million to renovate? Yeah, do the math on a 55,000-square-foot building, that now you've got, what $26 million in the per square foot to build on land that we already have? I think the public should ask those questions. I think the college should have looked at that.”

The county, provided it receives the approval of the Local Government Commission, is going to be responsible for the buying and renovating of the building, but as for staffing and equipment, Hopkins said Morton told him that the college would get funding through private donations and a capital campaign.

“And the renovation, how long is it gonna take? You know, renovation that size obviously has to go before the state and that process is a long one,” he said. “So how long would the building sit there unusable without the upfit? Is there a plan to use it temporarily for other things that will offset the cost?”

In addition to pushback against the nursing facility deal, he said he also pushed the trustees at the May 2022 meeting, the last one he attended in person, to not give Morton another 10% raise. The trustees extended Morton’s contract until 2027 at this meeting, but didn’t vote on this significant raise until the July meeting, one that Hopkins didn’t attend.

“In fact, they wanted to do it in May. And I said, ‘It's not fair. We need to find out what the state's doing and what the county is doing across the board. And I think it should be commensurate with what the faculty and staff are getting.’ So, I don't think that happened,” Hopkins said.

On the subject of Morton’s considerable raises, Hopkins said, “There was some feedback from other board members that they were afraid somebody would swoop in and steal Mr. Morton from the college.”

Who might replace Hopkins? And questions of influence over appointees to CFCC's board

When asked about who would likely replace him, Hopkins said he thinks the college has in mind the reinstatement of Robby Collins.

Collins lost his New Hanover County School Board reappointment bid to Ray Funderburk III even after pressure from the college via Michelle Lee and current CFCC trustee and county commissioner Bill Rivenbark.

Hopkins agreed that there was undue outside influence on school board members to reappoint Collins.

“There was quite a campaign to maintain that board seat, but it's the trustees’ job is not to be political. By statute, we are the college, the trustees of the college, so it should be a representation of those we serve,” Hopkins said.

And it wasn’t the first time that allegations were lodged by school board members about an outside pressure campaign to pick a specific candidate for the CFCC board. According to reporting from Port City Daily, school board members Stefanie Adams and Judy Justice cast doubt on the selection of Jason McLeod, now the vice-chair of the trustees, saying the process was “unfair.”

Hopkins said most of the trustees are currently focused on themselves or those in the upper administration.

“Our job is to take care of the people that the college serves, period. Not to take care of the president, not to take care of administration, but to take care of those the college's intended for,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins said he also takes issue with the way in which chairs are selected.

“I think the administration actively campaigns for who they'd like as chair. There's no job in the world that I know of, that you pick your boss, or try to pick your boss. And the board is the boss of the president. The board has the hiring and firing responsibility for the office of the president,” he said.

Advice for CFCC Board

When asked about WECT’s, WHQR’s, and the Assembly’s investigative series on CFCC — and the lack of accountability and transparency on the part of the college’s administration, Hopkins said, “I apologize for any role I played in any of that. I think maybe blind faith and blind trust, it was a little bit stupid of me.”

Like past employees who made their concerns public with the environment at the college, ones like former human resources director Sharon Smith and information technology director Kumar Lakahavani, Hopkins said dissenting opinions are not typically tolerated at the college.

“But the few times I've disagreed with this administration, it's been pretty chilly. And I'd like to challenge the other trustees not to just sit there, if you're on the board just to sit there, and say, ‘Yes and yes and yes,’ then you need to rethink your seat on the board because discourse is never a bad thing,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins’ advice for current and future trustees: take a more active oversight role over CFCC.

“Just because you don't agree with something, to sit in silence, or to smile and nod your head is not a good alternative. It does not serve those we're there to serve,” he said.

Despite the controversy over the county commission’s removal of him as a trustee, and his last disagreement with Morton, he said he continues to be proud of his 11-year CFCC board tenure.

“And I've always tried to do what's right. I'm not saying it's been perfect. Obviously, I've made mistakes with trusting, but there's never been one moment that I did not have the best interest of the college as my goal,” Hopkins said.

CFCC's response to Hopkins

When WECT and WHQR reached out to CFCC for comment, the new director of media relations Christina Hallingse, formerly communications manager for the NC State Ports Authority, said, “President Morton does not have the authority to appoint or remove members of the Board of Trustees. Mr. Hopkins was appointed to, and removed from, the Cape Fear Community College Board of Trustees by the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.”

The question that WECT and WHQR put to the college was, “Would CFCC would like to make a statement or give an interview regarding the allegations of retaliation by President Morton against Jimmy Hopkins? Hopkins has said multiple times his disagreement with Morton was the reason for his removal from the board of trustees.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that Sharon Smith resigned voluntarily before going public with the concerns that led her to do so. 

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