WILLIAMSON — Thursday’s Williamson City Council meeting came to an abrupt end following a heated, profanity-filled discussion regarding CARES Act funding the city has been rewarded.
The discussion began just after council voted to perform a complete forensic audit of the city’s bank accounts. Mayor Charlie Hatfield announced that Williamson has been approved to receive a grant of $81,177 out of the total $1.25 billion awarded to the state of West Virginia as part of the CARES Act, the federal economic stimulus bill passed in March in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Hatfield said he worked with Gov. Jim Justice’s office and the State Auditor’s Office to apply for the funds.
“I applied for it back in June,” Hatfield said. “I asked for the amount. I worked with my police chief and fire chief because their payroll was the issue. They provided me information, and we got it and worked with our city clerk’s office as well and got it, and I submitted the application, and I’m very pleased and proud that we were awarded that.”
Hatfield said that once the city receives the money, it will go into the city’s general fund to be used to make up for various losses incurred by the pandemic.
At the request of councilman Joe Venturino, city attorney Nathan Brown explained exactly what the money can and cannot be used for. Brown said the money can be put into the general fund, but at some point, the way it gets spent must be accounted for — for example, if the fire and police departments purchase items such as hand sanitizer or plexiglass, the items must be COVID-19 related.
Brown also said the council is allowed to set up separate accounts to track the money more easily. Councilman Randy Price asked if the general fund had specific boxes that could help them track the money; Hatfield responded that State Auditor JB McCuskey has not yet given the guidelines for how to properly track it, but that they will be followed when that time arrives.
Hatfield also deferred to councilwoman Sherri Hairston Brown about the issue, since she has served on the council the longest. She asked former Williamson Mayor Darrin McCormick, who was in the audience, how he and his former councils handled money received through grants.
McCormick said it depends on what the grant is for, adding that its intended use is laid out in the grant application. As she continued to question McCormick, Hairston Brown said, “We got a grant of $81,000,” which Hatfield interrupted by saying, “You didn’t get it. I applied for it, and we got it. It’s been awarded to the city — it’s not been funded.”
Hairston Brown responded that she knows the city received the funding and questioned McCormick further regarding intended use. Hatfield responded that Hairston Brown didn’t see the grant application.
“She didn’t even see it,” Hatfield said. “I’ll answer it. You didn’t know I even applied for it, so don’t talk like you are … OK? I applied for it.”
Hairston Brown then called Hatfield a “smart a**,” to which he said he is tired of the back-and-forth between himself and council.
“You know, it’s like a witch hunt, and I’m getting tired of it,” Hatfield said. “You all want to act like I’m doing something wrong. I get a grant. I’m probably the only person that gets a grant …”
The situation quickly escalated, with Hairston Brown telling Hatfield that she knows he got the grant because she spoke with fire chief Joey Carey about it. Price said the council’s questioning is only because the council wants to protect themselves by making sure the money is used properly.
Hairston Brown said she didn’t come to the meeting for Hatfield to “talk to (her) that way,” and asked him why he is “being so damn smart” with her. Hatfield responded, “I’m not being smart, I’m being straight with you.”
That’s when the discussion escalated even more, with Hairston Brown swearing at and calling Hatfield names as he warned her she needs to “be careful.”
A visibly angry Hairston Brown continued to yell at Hatfield, leading him to suggest moving on to the next agenda item. Hairston Brown refused and suggested the council adjourn; Hatfield and Price responded that they need to keep going to finish the city’s business matters.
Price attempted to calm Hairston Brown, while Councilman Ralphie Hall motioned to enter executive session for a personnel matter on the agenda. The motion failed after no other council member seconded.
Hairston Brown continued to suggest adjourning the meeting. Hatfield asked attorney Nathan Brown if adjourning during an ongoing meeting is possible, at which point Hairston Brown said council can and without giving a reason.
Price continued to ask Hairston Brown to move on, which she repeatedly refused to do. Hatfield asked for a motion to approve payment of city bills when funds become available, which Price made and was seconded by every other council member except Hairston Brown.
City fire chief Joey Carey came forward to give his report, and as he was doing so, Brown motioned to adjourn the meeting. The motion was seconded by Price and Venturino, putting an abrupt end to the fiery meeting.
Councilman Ralphie Hall voted against adjourning, saying he is “absolutely not” in favor of it during a roll call vote.
“Regardless of personal feelings, we’re elected by the people to do a job,” Hall said after the meeting. “Adjourning and not fulfilling our duties isn’t fair to the voters that elected you.”