Residency of officials questioned


Staff Writers

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Two former elected officials say they'd like to see more community investment by local leaders including the hospital CEO and school superintendent who may have their attention focused elsewhere.

“I do believe it’s important for top local government administrators to live in the communities they serve for a number of reasons,” said Wendy Wilson, a local law professor and former member of the Nash-Rocky Mount Board of Education. “They must truly become a part of the community in order to understand its strengths and challenges — and perhaps most importantly, to understand and to improve the way the members of the community view their local government. Members of that community expect that, and they have a right to expect it.”

Lee Isley, president and CEO of Nash UNC Health Care, maintains an apartment in the area but hasn't moved his family here. Though Isley was hired more than a year ago, he still hasn’t established a permanent residence in Rocky Mount or the surrounding area.

Isley told the Telegram in an earlier interview that he and his wife are looking for a permanent home here and plan to move as soon as their son graduates in May from high school in Granville County.

Other members of the senior leadership at the hospital also live out of the area, some as far away as Durham.

For community leaders, commuting shouldn't be an option, said Wayne Doll, former member of the Nash-Rocky Mount Board of Education. Doll is concerned that Nash-Rocky Mount School Superintendent Shelton Jefferies only technically resides in the area instead of being domiciled here.

According to online legal dictionary uslegal.com, domicile means “a legal residence which is the place where a person has fixed dwelling with an intention of making it his/her permanent home. Domicile is a combination of two factors, namely residence and intent to remain.”

According to state law, school superintendents must “reside” in their school district. And Jefferies does technically reside here. He rents a home in the area. He is also registered to vote in Nash County.

But Mecklenburg County property records show Jefferies and his wife Natasha bought a $620,000 home in Huntersville in February 2018, more than two years after he was hired as superintendent. His wife and children still reside there and he reportedly travels home on weekends to be with them.

When Jefferies was hired by the school district in December 2015, he told the Telegram that he and his family were excited about moving to the area. Doll said he had the same impression from the interviews that Jefferies had with the school board before he was hired.

Jefferies’ contract assumes that as well. In addition to his $172,500 annual salary, as a perk in his contract, Jefferies was awarded reasonable moving expenses as well as up to $12,000 in relocation allowances to “offset reasonable and necessary housing expenses within the school system’s boundaries while the superintendent’s current residence in Mecklenburg County is being sold.”

The Telegram sent an email to Jefferies asking him about his Huntersville home.

Jefferies replied simply, “As is required by my contract with Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools, I have established residency since December of 2015. I have lived at the same Rocky Mount address for the past three years. My lease agreement is through Boone, Hill, Allen and Ricks realtors. My utilities are regularly paid to Rocky Mount city government. All of this information is easily verifiable.”

Doll said he feels Jefferies' decision, though it may be based on personal choices, hinders the superintendent’s effectiveness in the community.

“Dr. Jefferies was always very responsive to me and I think he is doing a good job as superintendent. But he is hurting himself by not being a part of the community,” Doll said. “Perception is reality and when people see that the superintendent is not really invested in the local community, it doesn’t help him gain support and that doesn’t benefit the school district. He makes him less effective than he could be.”

Doll also said that residing in a community instead of being domiciled here keeps leaders from truly understanding the consequences of their decisions.

“When you have to make tough decisions that impact people in the community, if you don’t live in the community, you don’t have to meet those people whose lives you affected in the supermarket and confront those decisions you made. If you are going to represent the interests of the community, you need to live in that community — especially if you are in a position that has an impact on the community,” Doll said.

Jefferies is not the only community leader who has made this decision. Half of the 12-member cabinet of Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools — the executives who make most of the key decisions about the day-to-day operations of the school district — live well outside the district in areas such as Knightdale, Greenville and Raleigh.

The city of Rocky Mount requires department heads to live within city limits so they're readily available during emergencies and are a part of the community they serve. There have been some exceptions over the years, but for the most part, a newly-hired department head can expect to make that move. Department heads are usually given three to six months to find a local home. City managers can extend the period if extenuating circumstances arise.

A recent example of why that is important is Landis Faulcon, the city's director of community and business development. She began her job in January 2018 and didn't find a Rocky Mount residence until late last month when she obtained a lease for a house that still sits empty on Tarboro Street.

During Faulcon's first year on the job, while she lived in lived in Virginia Beach, Va. — a three-hour commute one way — downtown development activity dropped more than 90 percent.

Choosing to build a life outside of the community he or she serves affects a leader's ability to truly lead, Wilson said.

“It’s about trust and credibility. Not living in the community you serve sends a negative message, whether you intend it or not, and hampers your ability to lead, whether you acknowledge it or not,” Wilson said.