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NHC Commissioners appoint Woody, Kusek to New Hanover Community Endowment in party-line vote

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday morning, September 18, 2023.
The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday morning, September 18, 2023.

The county’s three Republican commissioners voted to effectively remove two Endowment members and appoint former conservative commissioners Woody White and Patricia Kuskek, despite a request from the Endowment’s leadership to keep the current members on the board. There was virtually no discussion of the relative merits of the applicants themselves.

On Monday morning, New Hanover County commissioners appointed two new members to three-year terms on the New Hanover Community Endowment.

The Endowment is tasked with managing over a billion dollars and will eventually generate up to $40 million or more in annual grants. It was created from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health; as part of the sale agreements, the county appoints five of the Endowment’s members and Novant’s regional board appoints six. During his review of the sale and Endowment formation, Attorney General Josh Stein required two additional board members to add diversity; those members are appointed by the Endowment board itself.

The county’s three Republican commissioners voted to appoint fellow conservatives Woody White and Patricia Kusek, who both served on the Board of Commissioners and were instrumental in the hospital sale and the founding of the Endowment. Neither ran for reelection in 2020 and both are now eligible for appointment following a two-year ‘cooling off’ period that was put in place during the creation of the Endowment.

Related: Former NHC commissioners White and Kusek seek appointment to New Hanover Community Endowment

At the time, Kusek was an outspoken critic of attempts to politicize the board, warning residents in a StarNews opinion pieceto “make note of the politics involved in each and every appointment."

The vote effectively removes Dr. Virginia Adams and Hannah Gage from their positions on the Endowment; both had applied for reappointment, with the formal support of the Endowment board, which voted to endorse their reappointment in August, according to a letter written by Endowment Chair Bill Cameron to Board of Commissioners Chairman Bill Rivenbark, requesting that the county reappoint Adams and Gage.

As Commissioner Rob Zapple read into the record, Cameron wrote that “both continuity and stability are critical as we enter the first grant cycle tied to our strategic plan. Both Virginia and Hannah have proven to be outstanding and committed board members who have worked to build the operational governance and investment structures needed for the Endowment to be managed in perpetuity. Having a stable board is instrumental to our long-term success.”

Zapple made a motion to delay the vote on appointments until after the Endowment had announced the grantees in this second cycle — the first since the Endowment approved its strategic plan — and which is currently open to applications with awards expected in December. Zapple noted this would allow “time to evaluate the work of the current board members,” as well as align the county’s appointments with those made by Novant’s regional board.

Commissioner Dane Scalise objected to Zapple’s motion, arguing that the timing of the county’s appointment vote had been moved already once before — in 2022 — and that he objected to moving it again. Commissioner LeAnn Pierce agreed.

Commissioner Jonthan Barfield, Jr. said that, while he respected Kusek and White’s desire to serve, it had always been his practice to reappoint eligible members of boards and committees.

Barfield also voiced concern about removing the county’s only appointee of color — Adams, who is Black — from the Endowment. (Note: Cedric Dickerson, another Black member of the Endowment board, was a Novant appointee.)

“The conversation right now would be to remove the one person of color that we put there. And my question to the Board of Commissioners is, ‘what message are we sending to the New Hanover County community as a whole when we remove any diversity of our appointments at all?’ And have all people from the majority serving on this foundation? I think it sends the wrong message, indeed,” Barfield said.

Barfield referenced Stein’s requirement for more diversity — specifically Black and Hispanic representation — on the Endowment board.

“So again, I would like for my board to check itself — and understand, if you make this move that I think you may decide to make, I think it’s sending the wrong message to the 230,000-plus citizens in this community — and to folks who look like me in particular,” Barfield said.

Beyond Zapple’s reading of Cameron’s letter, and Barfield’s comments on racial diversity, there was no other discussion of the merits of Adams and Gage versus those of Kusek and White.

Chair Rivenbark instead expressed frustration with the Endowment’s progress, recalling that in 2022 Spence Broadhurst, then the Endowment chairman, had called Rivenbark and asked the county to reappoint him and fellow Endowment board member Shannon Winslow because the Endowment was “just about where [they] wanted to be.”

“Well, at some point in time, that needs to be over. I mean, we can't just keep reporting the same ground for the rest of our life. We I feel like we need some fresh people on there,” Rivenbark said — although Endowment board members are limited to three consecutive terms.

Rivenbark also referenced a concern that has apparently caused some political tension behind the scenes — the discussion of the Endowment expanding its funding scope beyond New Hanover County.

The issue has not been strictly partisan: Attorney General Stein, a Democrat, said the Endowment’s funding should not be limited to New Hanover County following his review of the hospital sale and Endowment creation, but Brunswick County Commissioner Frank Williams, a Republican, was also critical at the time of stopping Endowment funding at the county line.

“There's been a lot of conversation about things that have been said in the past. One was about spending money outside of the county. And I got a letter last night from someone — explaining to me that that was said two years ago, and it was talking about 20 years from now or 25 years,” Rivenbark said.

Rivenbark didn’t identify who had written him, but it’s possible it was Gage, who told WHQR in 2021 that she thought there would be an ‘evolution of thought’ on the topic of Endowment funding beyond New Hanover County.

“You know, I really don't want to discuss giving our money away anytime until we've discussed it. And we weren't privy to that,” Rivenbark said.

At this point, Scalise interjected, putting forward a substitute motion to appoint Kusek and White. Pierce offered a second. The vote was abrupt, with no discussion. Scalise, Pierce, and Rivenbark voted for the motion; Zapple and Barfield voted against it.

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.