The Kenly Town Council emerged from a closed-door meeting Friday night, two days after its police chief, his four officers and two town clerks resigned, with little to say except they they will meet again next week.
The news of the mass resignations has brought media attention to the small Johnston County town of just over 2,000 people. About 50 residents gathered at Kenly Town Hall, huddled in small groups, talking among themselves as the Town Council members quietly took their seats in the small, brick building.
Denise Bennett, a native of Kenly, came to support new Town Manager Justine Jones. In resignation letters, the employees cited a hostile or stressful working environment, some blaming the manager.
Bennett said she doesn’t believe Jones, who started June 2, has had a chance to build relationships with people in the town yet.
“One of my questions is, what happened between May and July? It takes time when you get a new boss,” she said. “We just want to make sure that the process is fair, and this ultimatum of her versus him as a police chief is not a good process.”
Christel McGowan stood in front of Town Hall with a sign reading “Save Kenly, Fire Town Manager.”
Police Chief Josh Gibson has said he would consider returning to the job if Jones left, WRAL reported.
McGowan was hoping the Town Council would agree to side with the officers and remove Jones.
“They’ve been here over 20 years. This woman comes in and I have a lot to say, but I can’t,” McGowan said. “She sued Virginia, she sued South Carolina and I wouldn’t doubt it if she sues us.”
McGowan was referring to pending lawsuits between Jones and her previous employer in Richland County, South Carolina, for alleged gender and racial discrimination after she was fired in 2015, also reported by WRAL.
“We don’t need to … let everybody walk out because this woman has a hard time managing, and that I know for a fact,” McGowan said. She said she could not say how Jones was a poor town manager.
Longtime resident Cynthia Kirby said the entire issue is racial. Jones is a Black woman, and the police officers who resigned are white men.
“They don’t want to be led by anybody Black; that’s Kenly. They’re always harassing Black people. It’s racial,” Kirby said. “I hope this doesn’t end in her quitting because that’s not right. You can’t judge anybody because they make you do your job.”
Jones was hired out of 30 candidates in a national search, according to a town news release. She previously worked in local governments in Minnesota, Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
Jones told The News & Observer on Thursday morning she could not comment on the resignations.
Mayor meets with residents
Residents Heather and Michael Johnson were also hoping for some kind of resolution Friday night.
The two were in a meeting between Mayor Herbert Hales and some residents in a music hall across from Town Hall before the council meeting. The mayor told reporters they couldn’t be in the meeting.
Heather Johnson said she felt the mayor answered people’s questions the best he could.
“He was very upfront, and he said it like it was and said ‘if I don’t know, I’ll do my best to find out,’” she said.
She said she isn’t concerned about any safety issues that could come up with the officers’ resignations.
“Kenly only has one officer on duty most of the time, so this is not anything new. As much as the police chief tries to have multiple officers, it hasn’t been possible lately,” Johnson said.
“I’m hoping they can resolve this in a professional manner where whatever changes need to happen happen and we can walk away as a community and with no hard feelings, and with nobody dramatizing or with an agenda,” she said. “We just want to be safe in Kenly.”
Hales said he still has questions but was aware of some issues between the officers and new manager.
“Council was aware there was a possibility but you don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens sometimes,” he said. “[Tensions] built up very quickly.”
The Johnston County Sheriff’s Office will provide law enforcement protection for as long as the town needs, Sheriff Steve Bizzell said in a statement.
Kenly could join a short list of municipalities in the state with defunct or disbanded law enforcement agencies. Last year, the Davie County town of Mocksville voted to get rid of its police department.
Other town controversy
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Gibson, who has been police chief for the last two decades, said the new town manager has created an environment “I do not feel we can perform our duties and services to the community.”
The four officers and two administrators who also quit alleged a hostile and toxic work environment that they could no longer work in.
Neither Gibson or clerks Sharon Evans or Christi Thomas responded to requests for comment from The News and Observer.
This is not the first controversy involving the town manager’s office.
Former Kenly Town Manager Michael Douglas was charged with misdemeanor sexual battery in June 2020, according to court documents.
A civil lawsuit against Douglas and the town of Kenly was filed by a woman who claims Douglas came to her house and grabbed her breast in front of her sister and asked “Why won’t your sister let me hit it?”
“Thoroughly disturbed by this incident, plaintiff contacted the Kenly Police Department to file a report but was prevented from doing so by the Kenly Chief of Police, who informed plaintiff she should just move on from the incident,” according the lawsuit.
The woman tried filing a report again with a police lieutenant, but the chief prevented the lieutenant from filing the report, according to the lawsuit.
It is the general policy of The News & Observer to not name people who say they have been victims of a sexual assault.
The lawsuit states the woman also told the town board about the incident but that it was ignored until Douglas was charged in 2020, according to the lawsuit.
The town denies that the police chief prevented the woman from filing a police report, according to its response in court documents. The town says the town board was notified of the allegation and after the meeting a council member approached the district attorney to investigate it, according to court documents.
Court documents show that several people connected to Kenly have been subpoenaed in recent months in regard to the criminal case, including Gibson and Evans.
The next court date in the criminal case will be the week of Aug. 15. The civil lawsuit is in mediation.
This story was originally published July 22, 2022 8:57 PM.