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Ask a Journalist: Who wanted Jessica Cannon removed from the CFPUA board?

Email from New Hanover County Board of Education member Pat Bradford to Wilmington City Council and Mayor Bill Saffo.
City of Wilmington
Email from New Hanover County Board of Education member Pat Bradford to Wilmington City Council and Mayor Bill Saffo.

Last month, Wilmington City Council members got into a heated argument over an appointment to CFPUA. When the dust settled, more than one listener had questions for our ‘Ask a Journalist’ segment. WHQR’s Camille Mojica and Ben Schachtman have some answers.

Have a question for the WHQR newsroom? Send it "staffnews@whqr.org" and we'll do our best to find an answer. We might even read it on the air.

Benjamin Schachtman: OK, Cami, you covered this story about two weeks ago, what happened?

Camille Mojica: Well, Dr. Jessica Cannon was up for reappointment by city council to CFPUA. But the nominating committee suggested someone else.

And that’s when Mayor pro-tem Margaret Haynes pointed out that effectively removing someone who’d been doing a good job was pretty unheard of — and Councilman Kevin Spears said Cannon felt targeted politically.

Related: In heated vote, Wilmington city council overrules appointments committee on CFPUA position

BS: And, this wasn’t explicitly said during the meeting, but the context here is that the three council members on the nominating committee, Charlie Rivenbark, Neil Anderson, and Luke Waddell are all Republicans, and Cannon is a fairly outspoken progressive Democrat — at least in her private life.

CM: Right. But Waddell and Anderson said this wasn’t politics at all, instead saying CFPUA needed someone with financial experience on the board.

BS: But, at the same time, you reported that Rivenbark said some folks serve on the CFPUA board quote “without an agenda,” but quote “not in this case.” In the end, Haynes had the votes and Cannon was reappointed. But after the piece aired, we got some questions.

CM: We did! Listeners and readers wanted to know…Basically, who wanted Cannon removed and why?

BS: Well, during the meeting. Councilman Spears alluded to getting a lot of emails about Cannon, so we public records requested all emails mentioning her back to the beginning of the year.

CM: And what did we find?

BS: Well, most of this dates back to February, when Cannon posted on Facebook about New Hanover County school board member Pat Bradford, who is a conservative Republican. Cannon didn’t name Bradford, but she basically said, the owner and publisher of Wrightsville Beach Magazine – that’s Bradford – is a school board member with anti-LGBTQ beliefs, like her vote on the school’s transgender athlete regulations, and if her policies don’t line up with your values, you should avoid the magazine. She also provided a long list of companies that advertise with the magazine, and businesses that provide the magazine for free in their stores.

Below: A screen-shot of Cannon's post included in the first of about three dozen emails sent to city council and Mayor Bill Saffo.

A February 9, 2023, Facebook post by Dr. Jessica Cannon.
City of Wilmington
A February 9, 2023, Facebook post by Dr. Jessica Cannon.

CM: And people emailed in about this — asking for her to be removed?

BS: Oh yeah, the day she posted, like right after, the emails started coming in. Over three dozen over the next few days. Many of them, in fact most of them, seemed to be from a template, which we should say advocates of all types use.

These accused Cannon of doxing, slandering, and violating city policy. Some called for an investigation, most called for her to be removed.

Pat Bradford herself emailed two days after the post and directly called for Cannon to be terminated and asked for the attack on her business to be quote “shut off.”

CM: And what was the response?

BS: Well, we don’t know what responses happened in person or by phone, but from the email record, Councilman Rivenbark was pretty much the only one who responded. And, while he seemed sympathetic to Bradford and the other people complaining, he issued kind of a defense of Cannon’s actions. Here’s in part what he wrote to Bradford:

I have read your e-mail and am asking you if she mentioned her affiliation with CFPUA in her posts? If she didn’t I’m afraid that I can’t stop her. Her opinions are her own and unless she is intimating that the authority, in some way, shares her opinions you might want to call her and ask her why she feels the way she does. At the authority there is no room for politics and wouldn’t tolerate it if it came up.

And he pretty much gave a similar response to other people as well: since Cannon didn’t name-drop CFPUA, and she’s not a city employee, she has the freedom to speak her piece.

CM: Ok… was there anything else we learned from the emails?

BS: It was pretty quiet after that — but Rivenbark and Waddell did have something of a disagreement with Cannon two months later. She gave the two a heads-up that she wanted to ask the city and county for $250,000 each to help support low-income CFPUA customers, since they were losing state and federal grant support. Rivenbark didn’t like the idea that city residents, who also pay county taxes, would in effect be paying twice – something he pointed out happens with many city/county co-funding projects. Cannon went ahead with the ask anyway, which definitely looked like it frustrated Rivenbark and Waddell, who felt they should have had a say in it. Rivenbark confirmed to me that he doesn’t like the tax doubling-dipping, but also said that for him it was just about getting the right person on the board.

CM: Alright, thanks Ben!

BS: Thanks, Cami!

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.
Camille hails from Long Island, NY and graduated from Boston University with a BS in Journalism and double minors in Classical Civilizations and Philosophy. Her story focus revolves her deep care for children, young adults and mental health. You can reach her at cmojica@whqr.org.