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Wounds Slow to Heal in Burke Centre

Disputes linger four months after heated race for trustee positions.

It's been four months since the election of the Burke Centre Conservancy Board of Trustees, and the controversy stirred up during the campaign has yet to simmer down. The new board president, Luanne Smith, is feuding with former board member Duwain Ketch, whom she beat for an at-large seat in March. The Burke Conservancy's executive director, Tom Wade, is not being rehired, after three years on the job. And residents are paying an additional $75 per househould in a special assessment to make up for a $711,000 budget deficit in the conservancy's books.

"This year is going to be a difficult year for the community," said Ketch, who was treasurer of the board when the budget discrepancy was discovered late last year. And although many of Burke Centre's approximately 15,000 residents are not paying close attention to the community's board, they are likely to be upset when staff from the Burke Centre Conservancy starts looking for jobs elsewhere, said Philip Lawrence, a self-described "noisy" 25-year resident of Burke Centre.

"The public will finally notice it when the weeds in the common areas don't get cut and the trash isn't picked up," he said.

THE DISPUTE can be traced back to the end of 2003 when trustees realized they were going to run a deficit in their 2004 budget. In November they had approved a $3.8 million budget that included no raise in the annual assessment charged to the community's 5,862 households. But trustees didn't anticipate costs related to the cleanup from Hurricane Isabel and declining revenue from the community's swimming pools, with the result that the conservancy announced a $711,000 deficit in January, tapped into unallocated reserve funds and imposed a $75 per household special assessment to be paid over three quarters. The regular assessment is $75 a quarter which doesn't include services such as trash pickup and pool memberships.

Smith, then a trustee representing the Oaks neighborhood, wrote to Wade and Ketch in January urging them to resign and calling them "the architects of a fiscal disaster for the community."

"You have incompetently and negligently handled your position and should be banned from serving," she wrote to Ketch.

In response, Ketch and five other members of the past board wrote to Smith in February criticizing her "unbecoming conduct" and saying she had "threatened" other board members.

"We believe your behavior has gone beyond fair political give-and-take and violates the standards of ethical conduct to which we are all subject."

The letters poisoned the board election, which takes place annually in March.

"I've lived here for 22 years now; this is the most despicable election I've ever seen held in Burke Center," said Ketch, who lost his bid to retain his at-large seat to Smith.

"I understand he has hard feelings, but he ran on his record, and I think it's my duty to say his record wasn't good," said Smith. She added the reason she decided not to run for re-election for the Oaks seat but to target Ketch's seat was "I thought it was imperative that he lose the election."

Smith was later unanimously elected board president by the members of the new board.

ONE OF THE most controversial actions taken by the board under Smith's leadership was the decision in May by a vote of 4-2 with one abstention not to renew Wade's contract. While the vote was public, board members discussed their positions behind closed doors and have refused to explain their decision not to rehire Wade.

"I don't have any comment on that," said Colette Sheldon, the Ponds neighborhood trustee.

The board's secrecy on the matter has offended some residents who say they have a right to know why the board would want to let Wade's contract expire. Wade was hired in September 2001 after an extensive search.

"For all intents and purposes, he's been fired, and we are not to know why," said Lawrence. "[Smith] is making independent, unilateral decisions, and they're not justifying them at all."

Wade did not return a call for comment.

Smith said nothing is inappropriate about dealing with personnel matters in executive sessions to protect the community from defamation lawsuits. "You don't say one way or another why you don't retain an individual."

Ketch criticized the secret process and said he would have voted to retain Wade.

"I thought that he would be a good, solid person to carry on in the immediate future," he said. "Whether or not there were some minor problems or whether or not he had anything to do with these issues of the budget shortfall certainly doesn't, in my mind, support not renewing his contract."

TO KETCH, it isn't fair to blame him or Wade for the budget shortfall. All board members had an opportunity to review the 2004 budget before voting on it in November, he said.

"It was no major catastrophe; it was not an unusual situation. It just was an unexpected circumstance that the whole community shared in," he said. "There were some minor adjustments, nothing major."

Smith, however, said that the blame rests with Ketch and Wade.

"They're the ones that are supposed to be pointing out that we have cash flow problems," she said. Instead, she added, several board members were "in denial" over the deficit.

"It was a major, major event, and anybody who's trying to say it wasn't is really in total denial," she said. "I think the public has a right to know when their funds are being mismanaged."

The uproar over the budget deficit has drawn attention to the deep-seated structural imbalances in the conservancy's finances, said Phil Pool, the newly elected board treasurer. Over the past four or five years, he said expenses have been increasing while revenues have remained relatively stagnant.

"It was only a matter of time before it ran short," he said.

At the same time, public facilities — some of which were built over 20 years ago — are aging. With a decline in pool memberships, the board may start to look at whether it is feasible to keep all five of the community's pools open.

Burke Centre residents also can expect more assessment increases during budget time, said Pool.

Ketch said the current board with its lightning rod chairman is not equipped to deal with the community's long-term problems.

"I think the community and hopefully the remainder of the board will see what's happening and stand as a block to keep things in balance until the next election," he said.

Smith, however, said she is being vilified for being a whistle blower, calling attention to the board's budget deficit at a time when other board members were "in denial."

"I'm being defamed, and I think I was the one trustee who was dealing honestly and honorably for our community," she said. "I think I was the good guy."