N.C. town manager fired months after entire police department quit

In July, six officers accused the town manager of creating a toxic work environment in their resignation letters

By Kristen Johnson
The Charlotte Observer

KENLY, N.C. — The small Johnston County town that made national headlines after its police force resigned is now short another town leader.

At a closed session Tuesday night, the Kenly Town Council voted 3-2 to fire Justine Jones as town manager just three months into her two-year contract.

Council members Mark Smith, Trinity Henderson and Bobby Peele voted to terminate Jones’ contract, while Lawanda Neal and Keith Davis voted in opposition.

Jones, who started the job on June 2, became the focus of the conflict after six Kenly police officers and two town administrators accused her of creating a hostile work environment in their resignation letters.

The decision to fire Jones came at the end of two critical phases, said Town Attorney Chip Hewett.

The first was the conclusion of a month-long investigation led by Hewett and the N.C. League of Municipalities into the accusations made by Josh Gibson, the former police chief, and other staff and officers.

The confidential investigation, which included a series of interviews of former and current employees, found no evidence of a hostile or toxic work environment, Hewett said.

“This really didn’t surprise us,” Hewett said. “Could there be some improvements, or could there be some things changed? Yes.”

The second phase was that Jones was up for her 90-day review which, in her contract, could lead to termination if the council saw fit.

Mayor Tooie Hales told The News & Observer that the majority of the council decided Jones was not “working out.”

“The termination of our contract with Jones is not solely related on the investigation and the resignation of the employees,” Hales said. “Those are separate items, and we looked at them separately.”

Hales would not explicitly say why Jones was not working out.

Jones is expected to finish the week as manager and will receive a severance package of about $50,000, which is half of her salary plus benefits.

“The decision to not communicate the entire story and publicly share the findings of the report is most unfortunate,” Jones said in a statement Wednesday evening.

[PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Entire N.C. police department resigns, citing 'toxic' work environment]

Former officers speak out

The resignations in Kenly made national headlines and reached audiences as far as Australia, said Jason Tedder, the former lieutenant for the Kenly Police Department.

He told The N&O that resigning after 15 years was “heartbreaking.”

“This is my community,” he said. “It makes me feel bad because I really do love the people in this community.”

The resignations and firing of the manager did not have to happen, he said.

“When you’ve got a problem, the very first thing you do is sit people down and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t going right, how do we fix this?’ None of that ever happened,” Tedder said. “I would love to go back. … but there needs to be a more professional work environment where people can sit down at a table together.”

Tedder said the main reason the officers quit was because they feared Jones would fire them. The officers, mainly Gibson, did not agree with new requirements and changes Jones wanted in the department, he said.

He said Jones would require calls or emails to make appointments to see her and that Gibson would get “crazy write ups” for things like being late or stopping to talk with business owners while on duty.

“No one wants to be a cop,” he said. “The people that worked here were (here) because they loved their job and the people that worked here. It took us a year to fill two (officer) positions because we don’t get any applications here.”

By resigning, the officers also had a chance to keep all their vacation time and sick leave instead of risking losing it if they were fired, he said.

“We hoped that with all of us plus the Town Clerk of 31 years, that somebody might listen,” he said.

Darren Pate, a patrol officer who resigned, said there was a communication issue and that he wanted Jones fired but has no plans of returning.

“At the last public meeting the Town Council sent a clear message that they do not all support us by voting to seek a new police chief and then hire new officers,” Pate told The N&O. “I just do not feel like that will be a good place for me to go back and work.”

Pate said he could not give exact examples of a hostile work environment because his only interactions with Jones were brief.

Tedder and Pate said they have gotten job offers in other areas since they resigned.

Was it racial?

Most people who did not know about Kenly before, may know it now as the town where the all-white police department left after a Black town manager was hired.

The vote to oust Jones was also split across racial lines. Both Neal and Davis are Black. Henderson, Smith, and Peele are white, as is Hales, though he only votes to break a tie.

Some residents believe race was an issue, The N&O previously reported.

Tedder said he “hated” that and that some people always want to “jump on that bandwagon.”

“The only reason racism still exists is because the old people still talk about it,” Tedder said. “It’s just like when they had the Town Council meeting; most of them were people of color, and they supported us. It hurt me that it went to (race) because it was nothing like that.”

Tedder said his office phone number and email were filled with messages after the resignations, some congratulating him and others calling him a racist and a bigot.

“It never should have gotten to that place,” Tedder said.

Courtney Hamilton, a Kenly resident, disagrees.

She believes, since the Town Council did not provide evidence that proved Jones created a hostile environment or was unfit to be manager, the conflict looked racial.

“I feel like the members who voted against her were probably under pressure from the community to get rid of her even though she’s done nothing wrong,” Hamilton said. “(The vote) didn’t surprise me, but at the same time it’s disheartening.”

Moving forward

The Johnston County Sheriff’s Office is providing security for the town while it looks for police and now a new manager.

Until then, Hales and the interim Town Clerk will continue to handle operations and ensure the town is running smoothly.

“We’re charged with doing what’s best for the town and we felt like we needed a new blank slate to start over and get things going in a positive direction,” Hales said. “You have to be very careful when you’re dealing with personnel issues but the Town is doing the best it can to work and rebuild the trust of its citizens but we’ve got to make some positive things happen. … We’re working feverishly.”

No council members responded to requests for comment from The N&O.

Hamilton said moving forward here needs to be a “mindset change” in Kenly and that all residents need to be made a priority.

“Until mindsets change, nothing will,” she said. “We’re almost in 2023 and there are very capable women, not just Black women, just women who can hold these positions and do these jobs.”

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