Move comes amid controversy over Steinburg agreement
In the wake of questions, controversy and division on the board itself, the Currituck County Commissioners voted to change how the county awards some contracts at its Aug. 20 meeting — mandating that the commissioners will decide whether to approve contracts to elected officials who represent the county.
The impetus for that change was a $50,000 contract awarded to a company owned by Bob Steinberg, who represents Currituck County in the N.C. House, and is running for the District 1 N.C. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Bill Cook.
The contract with Steinburg’s WolfeStein Group was for marketing and promotion of the “visitcurrituckOBX.com Battle in the Blue Ridge,” a four-team college basketball tournament slated for Nov. 23-25 at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville. The participating teams are Gardner-Webb, Eastern Illinois, Arkansas State and UNC-Wilmington.
Much of the debate focused on the perception created by the county awarding a contract to a legislator who represents its interests in Raleigh, potentially giving him leverage in that relationship. There were also concerns that it was awarded without the approval of the commissioners — although County Manager Dan Scanlon noted that, under the existing rules, that agreement did not require board approval.
In explaining the ordinance, Scanlon wrote in an email to the Sentinel that the county manager and/or county attorney can execute a service contract “for which budgeted departmental appropriations exist (i.e. available funds are within the appropriate line item).” In those cases, board approval isn’t required.
And after a lengthy Aug. 20 presentation on how the county awards contracts, the Currituck Commissioners changed those rules. By unanimous voice vote, they mandated that future contracts with elected officials representing the county be approved by the board, not just the county staff, county manager and county attorney.
“Sometimes we need to make changes to ordinances…It’s come to everyone’s realization that we need to make a change,” said Commissioners Chairman Bobby Hanig at that meeting. Hanig, who has defended the decision to award the Steinburg contract, added that, “I really feel what this is doing is protecting the staff and protecting the elected official from undue scrutiny, either from the public, from the media, from other elected officials.”
In a Sentinel interview, Hanig also made it clear that he thought the criticism of the Steinburg contract was “absolutely” politically motivated.
“Had Steinburg lost the primary, there wouldn’t have even been a conversation,” said Hanig, who defeated Beverly Boswell in the GOP primary for the N.C. District 6 House seat and now faces Democrat Tess Judge in November. (Steinburg defeated Clark Twiddy in the GOP primary for the N.C. Senate seat.)
Asked to comment on the commissioners’ vote, Steinburg told the Sentinel that, “I’m fine with it. No problem at all. We followed the protocols to the letter of the law. They have new protocols now, and we’ll follow those protocols.”
Steinburg added that he brought the idea for marketing at the basketball tournament to Dare County a day before he approached Currituck County with the idea — and that Currituck County committed first. He called the attention to his contract a “nothing burger” and asserted that “without question,” the controversy was fueled by political rivals.
D. Cole Phelps, the Democratic candidate for the District 1 N.C. Senate seat, criticized the Steinburg contract in an email, stating that, “It is unfortunate that the commissioners had to make a special ‘Bob Steinburg Rule’ to explicitly prevent Mr. Steinburg from self-dealing taking county tax monies. An elected official should never engage in a transaction to enrich himself at the expense of taxpayers, nor should he engage in any underhanded, back-room deals hidden from the public using the public’s money.”
Last month, in a story that exposed the divisions on the board, the Daily Advance reported that four of the county’s seven commissioners said they were largely in the dark about the Steinburg contract. Several of them also indicated that they had misgivings about such an agreement.
One of those commissioners was Mike Hall, who told the Sentinel that, “Without knowing the particulars…I felt we should treat Mr. Steinburg’s [contract] the way we approve our own contract [for] any county official or county employee.” In those cases, the contracts require board approval. They also have a limit of $40,000.
Asked if he thought the scrutiny of the Steinburg contract was political, Hall said, “I’m not sure if it is or isn’t.” But he added that, “Had we handled it the same way [as county employee contracts] from the start, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”