‘Burngate’ Sparks Calls for Manager’s Resignation
By: CAREY JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
LOUISBURG — Residents upset with the county manager’s decision to burn historic documents called upon her to produce at least one piece of paperwork — her letter of resignation.
County Manager Angela Harris didn’t comply with that request, but she did tell commissioners and the public that she would craft a letter detailing her decision to destroy documents that were being housed in the Franklin County Courthouse basement.
“I think that would be helpful to the board and the community,” Harris said during the board’s meeting on Monday night.
Her response came after members of the Franklin County Heritage Society lambasted the county’s decision to destroy courthouse records on the weekend beginning Dec. 6.
In the spring, the historic preservation group began reviewing documents kept in the courthouse basement after newly appointed Clerk of Court Patricia Burnette Chastain came across the weathered storage area and asked the group for advice on how to preserve and catalog the information.
The volunteer group, with assistance from the county, procured a place to store the documents and the Heritage Society had plans to digitize the documents.
Between the spring and fall, though, staff with the State Office of Archives and History, and the Administrative Office of the Courts reviewed some of the documents and examined the basement — advising county staff that the documents could be destroyed, after they were inventoried, and the basement needed to be cleaned.
Heritage Society staff told commissioners and county staff that they were willing to fully inventory the documents, at their own risk, and catalog the information.
However, the state and county staff contended that the mold on some documents and inside the basement was too much of a risk.
The county and state also contended that some of the basement documents held sensitive information — some of the documents kept in the basement included old social services paperwork.
As a result, the county paid Builder Services about $7,400 to box up the remaining documents, burn them at the county’s animal control shelter, and clean the basement.
That work began at about 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 6 — a Friday — and continued through that weekend.
The decision was not made during a public meeting and no notification went out prior to the cleanup effort.
“We were told nothing about the destruction,” said Heritage Society Member Annette Goyette, who was part of an initial group of society members to begin examining the documents.
Goyette noted that Harris told her she would be kept abreast of the county’s actions, but did not hear anything about the destruction and hasn’t heard from Harris since.
“We feel like we need a public apology to amend the insults,” Goyette said during the public comment portion of the board’s meeting on Monday night.
“The records are gone,” she said. “We have to accept that.
“But we have to make sure this never happens again.”
Resident Roger Lytle, who has been vocal about the county’s handling of the documents, said Harris’ sudden and swift actions — in defiance of public efforts to save the documents — brings into question Harris’ ability to continue as county manager.
“People are angry about the destruction of these records,” said Lytle, noting that it has gone beyond Franklin County.
Thanks to the Internet, the matter has gone global and has placed a stain on the county that would impact its ability to attract new business and industry, he said.
Ultimately, he said, it all falls back on Harris’ ability to manage the county.
“She failed to do her job,” Lytle said of Harris. “It brings into question her ability.
“And the question is, does she need to be removed?”
Resident Mary Ella Hutchinson was just as blunt. She said the answer to Lytle’s question was ‘yes.’
“I’m publicly calling for the resignation of the county manager,” she said.
She was particularly perturbed by the county’s decision to rely upon advice from state agencies, like Archives, but not respond to residents who elected them.
“We elected you and you owe us some answers,” she said.
Resident Steve Trubilla expressed his exasperation because he said neither county staff nor county commissioners appeared to answer for anything.
He’s asked questions in person and through letters — none of which garnered a response.
“I don’t often attend these meetings anymore because I don’t feel like I’m welcome anymore,” he said. “Are you going to answer (anyone’s) questions?”
Commission Chair Sidney Dunston said the board was not going to engage in a back-and-forth debate during the meeting.
Resident Dee Sams said the leadership of the county and the approach they are taking, exemplified by the courthouse document decision, is harming the county.
“Who knows what we lost?” said Sams. A complete inventory of documents was not completed before the destruction was authorized.
“It’s an absolute travesty.
“Franklin County has gotten a seedy reputation and this does not help.
“… Something needs to happen because of that.”
The only commissioner to speak, Harry Foy, said he was in support of volunteer efforts to save the courthouse documents and a decision to destroy them never came to the board for a vote, he said.
After that, Harris told commissioners and the public that she would prepare a written response regarding the incident.
It was not clear when that response would be made public. The board next meets on Jan. 21.