MORRISVILLE — Town Council meetings in this town often last late into the night, as elected leaders debate issues as complex as tax hikes and as seemingly simple as relocating a historic tobacco barn.
Two factions have emerged on the town’s governing board over the past two years, and the seven members of the board often disagree on decisions that shape the town’s character and finances.
And it’s clear that they don’t always like each other.
While some of the lengthy debates include concerns that affect the town, some are filled with procedural minutiae and personal sniping.Some council members’ behavior outside town chambers has also raised some eyebrows.
In May 2012, Councilman Mark Stohman accused fellow Councilman Steve Diehl of skewing a public survey.
In January, police charged Councilman Steve Rao with stealing a $1.99 pair of gloves from a local convenience store.
The case later was dismissed after Rao completed a court program for first-time offenders.
Mayor Jackie Holcombe ruffled some feathers in January when she wrote an open letter to retailer Gander Mountain asking the company to stop selling semi-automatic rifles in the wake of a school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
About a year ago, Holcombe called Councilman Michael Schlink a “woman-hater” during a council discussion. She accused Schlink of assaulting her after the council meeting, and has since requested that Morrisville police escort her to her vehicle after meetings.
John Whitson, who served as town manager at the time, said Schlink did not lay a hand on Holcombe. A police report was not filed.
“She’s a petty woman,” Schlink said of the mayor. “I think we can run much more efficient meetings. I attribute it to the mayor’s leadership. She’s an incompetent leader.”
Conflicts on the board emerged during the 2011 cycle, and they linger two years later.
On Nov. 5, Morrisville voters will choose a mayor and three Town Council seats.
Holcombe faces challengers Mark Stohlman, who currently serves on the council, and newcomer Narendra Singh.
Incumbents Margaret Broadwell and Rao also face challengers, and two newcomers are vying for the District 2 seat.
In 2011, incumbents Pete Martin and Linda Lyons lost their council seats. They were political allies of Holcombe, a Democrat.
As a result, the dynamics of the council shifted. Controversial and not-so-controversial topics regularly result in 4-3 votes, highlighting a divide on the board.
Holcombe and Diehl, both Democrats, typically vote together, while Republicans Stohlman and Schlink usually vote together. Rao and Broadwell, who are Democrats, have shown support for either faction, along with unaffiliated voter Liz Johnson.
The 2011 race for the District 1 council seat got heated, and Lyons lost her seat to Schlink by three votes.
Lyons was accused of trying to vote twice during the election season and eventually was convicted of voter fraud.
Holcombe stood by Lyons through the ballot appeals process.
Since then, the relationship between Holcombe and Schlink has continued to deteriorate.
Tensions peaked when Holcombe accused him of assault. She declined to give details about the alleged incident, but she said she no longer felt safe around him. She said she didn’t file a police report because it would have been “my word against his.”
Schlink said he and Holcombe had a verbal exchange that evening but that it didn’t escalate to anything physical.
“Jackie’s coming out of left field.… I don’t know what it does other than tarnish another person’s reputation,” Schlink said. “She never wanted me elected. She helped my opponent.”
Accusation among members
Holcombe and Schlink aren’t the only ones on the council who have argued in the past. Stohlman said Diehl skewed a public survey by taking the survey several times.
Stohlman argued that Diehl was trying to push forward specific projects, such as the aquatics center and N.C. 54 bypass, for the 2012 bond referendum.
Stohlman confronted Diehl during a Town Council meeting, to the surprise of other council members. Many said Stohlman should have alerted them to the issue before airing it in public.
“He was stuffing the ballot box,” Stohlman said. “It’s appalling when you think about what he was trying to do. It’s everyone’s fear that we ask for public opinion and then go behind the scenes and do whatever we want.”
Diehl initially denied submitting multiple surveys.
“There was no intent to unduly influence the survey outcome or in any way act unethically. Not getting a ‘completed survey received’ message, I thought there was a glitch in the transmission and simply resubmitted the answers,” Diehl said during a June 2012 meeting.
Stohlman pushed for a formal investigation. Ultimately, town attorney Frank Gray found that Diehl did submit multiple surveys.
Diehl, meanwhile, said it was unintentional. He claimed that Stohlman’s actions were politically motivated and part of a bid for the mayor’s seat.
Stohlman was first elected to the council in 2007 but lost his seat two years later. Since rejoining the council in 2011, Stohlman has stood in opposition to many of Holcombe’s stances, including gun control.
Stohlman said Holcombe shouldn’t have used town letterhead in her letter to Gander Mountain.
“Holcombe decided her personal viewpoints trumped those of the hundreds of businesses and thousands of citizens. The next time Holcombe goes on a media blitz under the guise of town leadership, she may want to talk to the rest of the Town Council first and fully engage Morrisville residents and businesses,” Stohlman wrote in a Jan.13 letter to the editor in The Cary News.
Tensions increased late last year, when Stohlman announced he would run for mayor.
Then discussions about the long-awaited Northwest Park fueled the already-sour relationship.
Holcombe and Diehl accused Stohlman of making unfair political promises to residents when he said construction of the park would start within 12 months.
The council voted in July to spend up to $100,000 on the Northwest Park design. But there was no guarantee when construction would start.
Conflict over the park continued in August, when Stohlman refused staff’s recommendation to temporarily shift about $420,000 from Northwest Park’s future spending to complete the 25-acre RTP Park.
The money would have been replaced before time came to spend money on construction.
Stohlman said it would seem to residents that the town defunded the 5-acre park, which has been vacant since 2005.
Stohlman’s political promises were getting in the way of financial sense, Diehl said at the time.
Caught in the middle were about 700 residents who signed a petition requesting the town to move forward with the park.
Ultimately, the council agreed to keep the $420,000 in the account and shift money from other park accounts to pay the remainder of RTP Park construction.
TJ Cawley, who is running for the District 2 seat on the council, attends most council meetings. He said he’s noticed divisiveness on the board.
“My impression is that this new council isn’t working together as well as it should,” Cawley said. “It seems more political. Some of them try to politicize to gain votes, Northwest Park specifically.”
Ramos: 919-460-2609; Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews