MORGANTON – An ongoing dispute with the mayor and City Council has sparked a recall campaign.
“We, the undersigned qualified registered voters of the city of Morganton, NC, petition the Morganton City Council of a recall election for the officer of mayor as authorized by the Morganton City Charter, Article III, Chapter 3.”
That is the wording on a petition currently being circulated that, if properly filed and certified, would compel the City of Morganton to hold a referendum to determine if Mayor Mel Cohen should retain his seat.
The move was initiated by Dr. Aziz Omer who has become a vocal critic of the mayor and city administration since the City Council authorized an increase in utility deposits. Omer says he has more than 200 signatures on the petition. He said he wants the recall referendum in 2014.
Election rules require the petition to have 25 percent of the number of qualified registered voters in the city at the time of the last city election. That number is 2,228.
The city charter requires City Council to call for such an election by resolution once the petition is certified by the board of elections. Only Morganton residents eligible to vote would participate in the referendum.
Omer owns rental properties within the city and has said the increase, which went from $160 to a high of $400 with credit checks, precludes many from being able to rent properties and is a hindrance on the local economy and has spurred him to lead the recall effort.
Cohen rejects Omer’s allegations.
Here is a synopsis of Omer’s motivation for initiating a recall and the mayor’s responses.
Omer: “I have had so many who saw the budget meeting (of June 17) on You Tube and saw how the mayor behaved with me and the rest of the public and they were absolutely disgusted by the whole thing.
“He doesn’t believe truly in freedom of speech at the council meetings where he will change the rules or ring a bell.
“If I try to ask a question he will say, ‘Now, Aziz, we have spoken about this and we don’t need to talk about thus anymore. And, it’s my ground rules and I don’t want anybody repeating anything that’s already been said.’ That means he doesn’t want anybody on TV to hear or remember anything that might be repeated and that’s a violation of my First Amendment rights.
“I can repeat as many times as I choose to repeat something in my time frame. It is not his position to take to say what I can and cannot say.
“People have referred to him as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. That’s far people have felt compromised.
“Everybody says it’s time for a change.
“People are tired of this mayor who has made being the mayor his livelihood.”
Cohen: “One of the good things about being the mayor and presiding at a meeting is I set the ground rules. The ground rules may not please (Omer) because he’s on the other side of the podium, but I have that privilege.
“I have never denied anyone to speak whatsoever. He’s wrong. He came to the April meeting and spoke with five or six others. In May, he came with another group, and I really didn’t really limit him. There is a three-minute limit, but I told the city attorney to let him speak. I did that throughout with him because I knew he was the primary speaker. The next month he came with a group and spoke. Then he came to the budget meeting which was specifically called for the budget only. He did speak on the budget and he did inject his situation with the deposits, but I let it go.
“For him to call me names, I’m not going to get in the gutter with this man.”
Omer: “In the council meetings, everybody says ‘aye’ together.
In the county meetings, every person voices their opinions separately.
You can’t have an open public forum meeting in which there is no discussion between any of them or they are voicing any opinion.
“All he says is ‘All in favor?’ There is no discussion.
“In county meetings, you will hear every single person stating the facts and why they’re doing it. They’re even apologizing for having to do it.
“Here there are no apologies. Nothing is really open for discussion. That’s the bottom line.”
Cohen: “Our staff gives us a world of information prior to every meeting that we have. If you read the information and have a problem, we generally have some, but we have no bickering or a lot of confusion. But, we do bring up questions. I think Forrest Fleming brought up something on the agenda. They do it. It’s not like they don’t have the privilege of doing that. They can do it at any time during a meeting. But, they have so much information which they are given on the Thursday prior to the Monday meeting. They have time to research and talk to the staff if they have questions or concerns. And, they do it. I don’t control the city council members. We have a good staff that gives us good information. That’s the bottom line.”
Omer: “We have a city assistant manager on top of having a city manager for a town that is one-half the size of Hickory, and we have a budget as big as Hickory and still can’t make ends meet.
“(City Manager) Sally Sandy lied. She flat out said she could not meet me for three weeks initially when I tried to meet with her. I’ve confirmed she took those three weeks off.
“I asked them if I could meet Sally Sandy and they said she would be out for three weeks. They said they had my number, but they never called me.
“But, I’m not concerned if she takes three weeks or three months. My concerns are how things are being handled. People are talking about the lack of disclosure.”
Cohen: “For him to call Sally Sandy a liar is disgusting. What he is saying about her is not true.
“He said it in three different meetings about her going away for three weeks and I let it slip. He talks about her going on that long of a vacation and wouldn’t meet with him. She has never had a three-week vacation. She is probably one of the sharpest managers in North Carolina. I’m offended he says that about her. She’s a lady and she respects the individual. She met with one person of his like mind for over an hour last week.”
ECONOMY, TAXES AND FEES
Omer: “Our town is in such bad shape and our poverty and unemployment is going up. We have not brought any industries in this town. He has not done much of anything. People are tired of a 28-year situation with the mayor. It’s completely unacceptable at this point.
“He wants me to be liable just in the utility area where I could not legally shut (my renters’) power off if we are evicting them whereas the city as a separate entity can. No one in their right mind would become the insurance company for the city when they are running it. They should get Duke Power to run it if they cannot manage it.
“He’s telling people (city employees) they will lose their jobs if he’s no longer mayor. I’m not interested in anyone losing their jobs (here). These are false things he is saying.”
Cohen: “He kept saying compromise (on the utility deposits), but to him compromise is his way or the highway. I’ve always been a compromiser.
“He doesn’t understand every utility in America has deposits and we haven’t had a raise in ours for 21 years. That’s not a good thing for us and we should have done it many years ago.
“We went to $400 because today’s bills are going up whether it is Duke Power, REA or the City of Morganton. We are doing it as little as we can to make up for the increases we have to pay. He doesn’t seem to want to look at what’s around us.
“We have a city that provides services and we’re proud of those services. These are the same services we’ve had in the 28 years since I’ve been mayor. We do not want to cut services because people feel that’s what they must get from city government.
“He doesn’t understand the enterprise funding like CoMPAS cable (which was increased three dollars). Programming goes up each year. People can see on their screens now that Dish TV is negotiating with WBTV (about coverage rights). We’re having to pay every different channel that’s on our network and it goes up every year. When you have increases like that, you have to go up and tack those fees on.
“That is making money, but we have to make money because it’s a business. Water, sewer and cable are businesses and (Omer) doesn’t understand a city budget.
“I could have stopped him on every sentence he said at the budget hearing because he was wrong and wrong again. He stated what he thought and that’s his thinking. It’s not what the truth is when it comes to our budget.
“This is a person who has not voted in a city election in 10 years, and for him to profess that he could set and know a budget leads me to think he really did not care until it hit his pocketbook.”
HISTORIC MORGANTON FESTIVAL
Omer: “How is it possible the town of Morganton is sponsoring that festival of his where we are using taxpayers’ expenses to fund the police, waste management and planning and anything else that is going on that I am still unaware of where tax money is being utilized to do that? His 501(c)(4) festival belongs to him as a personal business. I cannot go up and get all of those free services that he’s getting which none of this is published.”
Cohen: “What he is saying is what was said six years ago in a political race that we shouldn’t have the Historic Morganton Festival. I do not profit from it other than providing the joy of having free country music stars give concerts for people who cannot afford to go to Charlotte. They are able to see those stars here on a Friday and Saturday night. I hear this every time there is an election.
“I have told them to get a CPA, you know, and we will have a CPA and go over the festival budget because it is public record. I have not heard back from them and that was the day after the council meeting (June 17). I don’t make a profit other than a little meager salary from the city of Morganton. I started the festival 32 years ago and I am extremely proud of it. There are a lot of churches and civic clubs in this community that are proud of it.
“Anytime he wants go over the festival budget he can bring a CPA and we’ll have the CPA of the festival to go over everything in there.
“(Saying I profit) is a lie. It continues to be every four years when I run for office. People try to use something good in the community to try to smear and smear me.
“The festival has been part of Morganton for 32 years. It’s main street and we do have city employees who are up there, and they help keep the things clean just like they did for the Red, White and Bluegrass Festival and like they do for the car shows. The car shows are not (a city) project, but we have public safety there and sanitation there.
“That’s our service we render to different organizations. If you wanted to have a yard sale and have people on the sidewalks which are public, we’d have to have police up there and have to have sanitation pick up the trash. We don’t want it to look bad.
“That would not come at a cost to the person doing it. That’s a service of the city and if (Omer) doesn’t like it, tell him to run for public office.”
Omer: “There are threats to people working at the city. (Cohen) is sending innuendos he will fire them if they sign the petition and he will scrutinize (the petitions). As the city attorney said, ‘It’s politics’ - meaning he has the right to do as he pleases and doesn’t technically break the law. Breaking the law is when the individual says he is breaking my rights or harassing me. Only when it is given to a police officer as a complaint does it become a violation. I know he’s used dirty politics in the past to take whatever he can get. They fired one of the clerks (over the utility deposit raises).
People have a right to their opinions.
Cohen: “I have never heard about (the situation with the clerk). I do not hire and I do not fire. I have never interfered with the hiring process or firing process in 28 years, and I’m not going to start today.
“For 28 years of serving the city of Morganton and loving it like I do, coming from him it’s tragic he would state something like that. But, in no way will I hire and in no way will I fire an employee for what they do in their personal life. ‘Personal life’ means I don’t expect him to go onto city property and solicit. I don’t get involved in employee relations whatsoever. You can ask our human relations person. Never. There has never been a report of me interfering with any employee of the city of Morganton. It is unequivocally not true.”
Omer: “I am speaking for the greater good of the community. The community says they would not vote for this man. It’s why we’ve had a loss in voter turnout because of the exhaustion and they feel defeated and have no hope.”
Cohen: “Aziz Omer is floundering trying to make what he’s trying to do legitimate. What he is trying to do is really not legitimate. He’s making up anything he can and he’s getting it from his associates.
“He’s been pushed into this position. He’s dirty and trying to get down in the gutter. I will not get down in the gutter. People know me. When I tell you something, it’s the truth and that’s the only way I’ve operated the last 28 years with the city.
“Almost every councilman has sat down with him. Our finance director has sat down with him – maybe more than once. Our attorney has sat down with him. And, I’m assuming Sally will or has not been asked to set down with him. If he has, he hasn’t followed up on in. You can talk to him, and I’ve talked to him and talked to him and talked to him, and it goes over his head.
“He is not understanding of city government, and this is not going to help him understand by being dirty, trying to lowball and being disrespectful to city employees.”