© 2023 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Behind the recent appointment vote, a deeper debate about the New Hanover Community Endowment’s billion-dollar future

The historic New Hanover County Courthouse, where county commissioners hold regular meetings.
Benjamin Schachtman
The historic New Hanover County Courthouse, where county commissioners hold regular meetings.

This week, New Hanover County commissioners voted along party lines to appoint former Republican commissioners Pat Kusek and Woody White to the Endowment — effectively removing the county’s only appointee of color, and triggering ‘concern’ from the Attorney General’s office over the Endowment’s lack of diversity. But Republicans say it’s not about race or politics — and point to issues with the direction and accountability of the Endowment, concerns echoed by the county manager.

On Monday morning, commissioners voted 3-2 to appoint White and Kusek to the Endowment’s board.

The motion was introduced by Commissioner Dane Scalise, seconded by Vice-chair LeAnn Pierce, and joined by Chair Bill Rivenbark — all Republicans, who said very little about their rationale. Commissioners Rob Zapple and Jonathan Barfield, Jr., both Democrats, voted against it, instead voicing support for the current board members who had applied for reappointment, Dr. Virginia Adams and Hannah Gage. Adams and Gage also had the backing of the Endowment; the Endowment's board voted to recommend them in August, and in a letter to Rivenbark, Endowment Chair Bill Cameron lauded their service and asked the county to reappoint them to ensure "continuity and stability."

Barfield noted that Adams, who is the retired dean of the UNCW nursing school and Black, is the county’s only appointee of color, and expressed concern that it sent the “wrong message.” It’s not just a concern over optics; the issue of diversity was hardwired into the Endowment’s board as its creation was finalized.

The Endowment manages 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 (NHRMC) to Novant Health; as part of the sale agreement 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 experience and/or diversity; those members are appointed by the Endowment board itself.

Following Monday’s vote, Stein’s office said it was troubled, and noted that the decision to allow the NHRMC sale was predicated on improving the diversity of the Endowment’s founding board.

“Our office’s decision to not object to this transaction was conditioned in part on the addition of two board seats to be filled by representatives who had experience in public health, serving underserved populations, and/or promoting racial equity and justice. We also raised the importance of having a board that is representative of New Hanover County, including the county’s diversity. We have serious concerns about the recent changes made by the board and are taking a closer look at these issues,” a spokesperson for Stein’s office told The Assembly and WHQR.

WHQR shared Stein’s comments with Scalise and Rivenbark, but they did not respond. Pierce said that she was not aware that Adams was Black, and that for her the vote was solely about her concerns about the Endowment’s direction. Specifically, Pierce said the Endowment was taking too long to get money into the community where it is needed.

“It is not about gender. It is not about race. It is not about politics. It is putting out things for this community – it needs to start happening faster. Oh, I heard from them, ‘we've only had three years.’ Well, you know, in business three years is a long time. If you can't make your business work in three years, it's gonna fail,” Pierce told WHQR.

Politics and the Endowment

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 Endowment was created as a private foundation to insulate it from politics — be it partisan spending, pet projects, or other unseemly aspects of politicization. That’s something the county commissioners largely agreed on in 2020 when the Endowment was crafted.

At the time, Kusek was perhaps the most outspoken critic of attempts to politicize the Endowment, warning residents in a StarNews opinion pieceto “make note of the politics involved in each and every appointment." Kusek’s concerns helped steer the founding documents away from early suggestions that over a billion dollars from the NHRMC sale simply end up in the county’s general fund, or in a specialized trust overseen directly by the county. (Note: Kusek did not return a request to comment; White responded to a request, but said he had nothing to add at this time.)

Yet Monday’s vote struck some as clearly partisan, including Zapple.

“You have three Republican commissioners who voted for it, and voted to put two Republican former commissioners on the Endowment,” Zapple told WHQR. “The one thing that I thought we had all agreed upon at that time was we did not want this to become a political organization. And yet here we are, headlong into it, and all that seems to either have been forgotten or has changed. And that was the worst part. So, is it a political party line, or a partisan thing? I don't think there's any way to avoid it.”

Scalise disagreed, saying, “It’s not politics, it’s not personal.”

He referenced a conversation commissioners had in late July, including a July 25 email from Zapple, who noted a lack of clarity about the Endowment’s grant cycle. Zapple wrote in his email that Endowment CEO William Buster had told the county during a public meeting in November that they were looking at moving towards two annual grant cycles — although he was clear that this was pending final approval of the Endowment board. In fact, the Endowment ultimately decided not to pursue two cycles per year, which had caused confusion in the community, according to Zapple.

That confusion, according to Scalise, “raises some questions as to the direction that the Endowment is heading [...] this is something that we've uniformly agreed on for months, that there was a disconnect between the commission and the Endowment. And ultimately, three people, irrespective of their party, irrespective of politics, irrespective of personalities, made a determination that the best way to create realignment with the endowment, and the Commission was to put two folks on there that previously served as commissioners and intimately knew what the endowment is supposed to be now, and what is it is supposed to be in the future [...] That's why we made the decision that we made.”

Zapple told WHQR he understood the Endowment’s thinking on when to schedule grant cycles, but said the public messaging around that kind of decision needed improvement. Zapple disputed that there was any kind of consensus among commissioners that it was “a critical thing that would tip the scales so we would throw two of the board members off with the appointment process.”

"Scares me to death": The Endowment’s direction

New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet.
New Hanover County
New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet.

It’s clear that the county is very invested in the Endowment’s “direction,” as Scalise put it.

That includes County Manager Chris Coudriet, who has at least twice internally raised issues over the last several months.

In one email from late July, Coudriet voiced concerns that the Endowment’s website ‘About Us’ page didn’t give sufficient credit to the county. It’s a minor issue, but one that reveals Coudriet’s deeper concerns.

“Commissioners, I hit a link to the historical forming of the endowment and thought it lacked connection to the county founding it, and it following priorities given to it by the creators when established [...] It is critical, in my opinion, that every aspect of the endowment show connectivity to the county,” Coudriet wrote.

In his email, Coudriet asked commissioners to check him if he was “pushing too hard.”

But Commissioners were supportive, and Coudriet sent a request to the Endowment as a “friendly amendment.”

The Endowment later tweaked the language on its website, more directly acknowledging the county and noting that the Endowment’s work is taking place “in conjunction with the New Hanover County Strategic Plan.”

Coudriet told WHQR he considered the request to be reasonable and not overstepping, noting that “the Endowment’s mission and its charge to fund grants locally would not have happened if the county commission did not choose that fact. I appreciate Buster and others who considered the amendment.”

In late August, Coudriet again weighed in, this time after reading joint reporting in The Wilmington Dive from WHQR andThe Assembly about the Endowment’s proscription against funding projects outside of New Hanover County. Some — including Stein, regional nonprofit leaders, and officials from outside New Hanover County — have noted that NHRMC’s growth was fueled substantially by revenue from patients from Brunswick, Columbus, Onslow, and Pender counties, part of NHRMC’s regional coverage area. Because of that, it’s been argued that the Endowment should spread its funding out to cover the regional area.

As Endowment CEO, Busterhas acknowledged the issue, but the decision isn’t his, it's up to the Endowment board. In the past, Gage — then the Endowment’s vice-chair — said the Endowment would focus on New Hanover County first, but there could be an “evolution of thought” over time. Gage has since said she did not mean in the near future, and the Endowment was steadfast during its most recent grant cycle — opened earlier this month — in publicly saying it would reject applications from outside of the county.

Still, while there was no evidence the Endowment was planning on spending money outside the county — and, in fact, evidence it would not do so anytime soon — Gage’s previous words struck a nerve with Coudriet. They may also have had a role in her removal.

In late August, Coudriet forwarded The Dive’s reporting and wrote an email to commissioners, top staff, and members of Novant’s regional and main board — namely, Brian Eckel, Jason Thompson, and Mitch Lamm. In his email, Coudriet rejected the argument that the $2 billion sale price of NHRMC had anything to do with its expansion, powered in part by patients from outside the county. But more to the point, he wrote that the discussion of Endowment funding crossing that county boundary gave him “great concern.”

“While historical reference, this suggests yet again the endowment (or others) wishes to operate outside the boundaries of New Hanover County. I stand by the fact that we have problems of our own to solve first, and the endowment revenues by themselves will not address it adequately. Intentional or not, there is a narrative being crafted that’s trying to thwart or perhaps pollute the vision of the county when it created this endowment. We’re 2.5 years into the endowment’s life, one round of grant funding authorized, only a second set of funds to be let soon, and debate about the intention of the endowment is part of the equation. This scares me to death,” Coudriet wrote.

Coudriet told WHQR that the issue of limiting Endowment funding to New Hanover County was the only issue he had in his professional capacity.

“As an advisor to the board of commissioners, the founders of the Endowment, I’m troubled that its mission became a topic of debate almost immediately after its creation in October 2020 [...] Despite its young age and clear original mission — to address complex community issues — it seems premature to debate its purpose now,” he said.

Given his pronounced interest in the Endowment, WHQR asked Coudriet if he had any plans or interest, now or in the future, to serve as Endowment CEO. Succinctly, Coudriet said, “no.”

Independent but accountable

William Buster, CEO and president of the New Hanover Community Endowment.
William Buster, CEO and president of the New Hanover Community Endowment.

The Endowment was created to be independent of the county — explicitly to protect it from politicization. But Coudriet’s concerns, and those of some commissioners, about the Endowment demarcate where they think the limits of that independence should be.

Courdiet acknowledged that the Endowment has, for example, the authority to make its own choices — like choosing a financial investment firm (namely, BlackRock), hiring Buster as CEO, and even changing its own bylaws to allow dipping into the principal of the Endowment’s fund when a rough year in the stock market meant there’d be no dividends to skim. But clearly, for Coudriet, the issue of where the money would go was too central to the county’s founding plans for the Endowment to change.

“You know, the endowment is independent, it does have discretion — but it's not unaccountable to the creator or to its supporters,” Coudriet told WHQR.

Accountability, Coudriet said, can be exercised through appointments. Who the county and Novant appoint to the Endowment is a representation of what those organizations think the Endowment should be doing. Coudriet said from his point of view, as someone who was present for the creation of the Endowment, appointments are the mechanism that keeps the Endowment’s independence in check.

Case in point: the boundary issue. Neither Scalise nor Pierce mentioned it — but during Monday’s meeting, Chairman Rivenbark did.

“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. “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 didn’t identify who had written him, but the county provided a copy of the letter to The Assembly and WHQR, which was written by Gage. In the letter, she claimed her remarks from a 2021 WHQR interview had been taken out of context as supporting Endowment spending outside of the county anytime in the foreseeable future.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she wrote.

What’s the future of the Endowment?

The letter didn’t sway Rivenbark. But, ultimately, the vote was about more than any misstep — real or perceived — by Gage. After all, Dr. Adams doesn’t appear to have said or done anything in her time on the Endowment board that caused public concern, and she was removed alongside Gage just the same. And replacing Adams and Gage with Kusek and White, who are now eligible to serve aftera two-year ‘cooling off’ period for former commissioners has elapsed, was probably not an overnight decision.

Rivenbark’s and Coudriet’s comments about spending outside the county, Pierce’s concerns about the pace of funding reaching the community, Scalise’s comments about the ‘disconnect’ between the Endowment and the county, and Coudriet’s concerns about the Endowment’s ‘About Us’ page all reflect a concern by county officials that the Endowment has strayed from the county’s initial plan — and its direct control.

The Assembly's Johanna Still contributed reporting to this piece.

[Disclosure notice: Commissioner Rob Zapple is a member of the WHQR Board of Directors, but he does not have any influence on editorial decisions.]

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.