Williamston – Beginning Monday, Feb. 1, Martin County will have a new county manager.

The 3-1 vote to hire James Bennett came following a closed session for personnel at the end of Tuesday night’s called meeting of the Martin County Board of Commissioners, and was a surprise to many - including a pair of commissioners.

Upon returning into open session, Chairman Ronnie Smith reminded the audience the closed session had been per North Carolina General Statute 142-318.11(a)(6) for personnel.

“We went in and we interviewed Mr. James Bennett for county manager,” Smith told the audience.

Smith then asked for a motion, based on their discussion in closed session.

Vice Chairman Dempsey Bond made a motion to hire Bennett as county manager. Commissioner Emily Biggs offered a second to Bond’s motion.

Commissioner David Gurganus obliged when Smith called for discussion on the motion. Gurganus stated he found no fault with the candidate.

“I do, however, do not particularly agree with the fact that this is the only candidate that I have had the privilege of speaking to. And I think in all fairness, and for the good of the county, we should have examined a few candidates and maybe come right back to the same results,” he said.

Facing Bennett directly, Gurganus confirmed his confidence in the candidate’s qualifications.

Smith along with Commissioners Bond and Biggs voted in favor of hiring Bennett. Commissioner Gurganus voted in opposition of the motion. Commisioner Joe Ayers was absent from the Tuesday night meeting.

Ayers confirmed Wednesday morning he was unaware the interview was planned for the closed session of Tuesday’s special called meeting. He also said there had not even been discussions about advertising the county manager’s job.

Ayers, who represents western district of the county, explained he received notice late Friday afternoon (Jan. 23) there would be a called meeting on Tuesday (Jan. 26) and was unable to reschedule work obligations at that point.

Gurganus agreed.

He added, “In my opinion the process was flawed. To my knowledge the only commissioners with knowledge of what was going to happen were Commissioners Smith, Biggs and Bond.”

Smith stated it was the responsibility of each commissioner to call the clerk, manager or chairman to find out before the meeting what was to be discussed in closed session.

When asked if other commissioners were made aware in advance of the scheduled county manager interview, Smith responded, “They did not have any heads up from me.”

Bennett’s last day as town administrator for the town of East Spencer was Thursday, Jan. 28, according to officials with their town hall.

Smith said Bennett had been in that position since 2019.

From 2012-2018, Bennett served as town manager for Red Springs.

According to Smith, Bennett had been interim town manager in Marshville from 2011-2012.

Bennett, per Smith, served from 2005-2006 on the staff of the North Carolina Association of Commissioners.

From 1997-2005, Bennett was Assistant County Manager then Interim County Manager for Anson County.

Thadd White is Editor of the Bertie Ledger-Advance and can be reached via email at twhite@ncweeklies.com.