Justine Jones: Kenly fires 'hostile' Black town manager after town's police force resigns

After Justine Jones, a Black woman, was fired, the town has been split, with some hailing the decision while others see the matter as a 'race issue'

Justine Jones: Kenly fires 'hostile' Black town manager after town's police force resigns
Justine Jones (L), the new town manager of Kenly. NC, was fired after police officers, including police chief Josh Gibson (R) complained thay she created a 'hostile' work environment (Screenshot from the News & Observer)
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KENLY, NORTH CAROLINA: A North Carolina city council has voted to terminate the contract of their new town manager less than a month after hiring her after the town's police officials resigned to protest against her, alleging she created a 'hostile' work environment for officers.

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At a closed session on Tuesday, August 30, 2022, the council of the Kenly town voted 3-2 to terminate their new town manager Justine Jones just three months into her two-year contract. While the council member including Mark Smith, Trinity Henderson, and Bobby Peele voted to fire the new manager, Lawanda Neal and Keith Davis voted for her to stay.

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The decision of the council came after five cops from the town’s small force, including their chief of 20 years, Josh Gibson, handed over their resignation to Jones and the city council while accusing her of creating a hostile work environment. The officials were joined by two town clerks who also gave in their resignations stating the same reason. However, town Attorney Chip Hewett, revealed that the decision of terminating Jones’ contract came at the end of two critical phases. The first phase was the result of the in-department investigation led by Hewett and N.C. League of Municipalities. The municipalities thoroughly investigated the accusation made by Josh Gibson, the former police chief, and other staff members. “This really didn’t surprise us,” Hewett said to News & Observer. “Could there be some improvements, or could there be some things changed? Yes.” 

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The second phase was that Jones was up for her 90-day review which, in her contract, could lead to termination if the council saw fit. Mayor Tooie Hales told the News & Observer that the majority of the council decided Jones was not “working out.”

“The termination of our contract with Jones is not solely related to the investigation and the resignation of the employees,” Hales said. “Those are separate items, and we looked at them separately.” Neither the force officials nor the clerks mentioned the specific hostile work experience which made them file their resignation. However, town Chief Josh Gibson did tell the authorities during the investigation that he was frustrated that the department was understaffed and that it added to the officers' and workers' stress. "It was just a lot of stress on a lot of us trying to maintain and keep coverage. This is heartbreaking. The community has always been so tremendously so supportive of us," he said. The accusation made by the town chief was backed by Austin Hills, Jason Tedder, GW Strong, and Darren K Pate who said, the office environment became toxic since the day Jones got assigned as town manager.

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Jones, a middle-aged Black woman, was appointed as the town manager back in June. She's worked in public service for the past 16 years, all in local governments, in Minnesota, Virginia, South Carolina, and now North Carolina, and has since garnered a reputation as a 'woke progressive'. Before being appointed as the town manager, Jones worked at her own consulting company.

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Responding to the resignation, he told The News & Observer that resigning after 15 years was “heartbreaking.” “This is my community,” he said. “It makes me feel bad because I really do love the people in this community.” The resignations and firing of the manager did not have to happen, he said. “When you’ve got a problem, the very first thing you do is sit people down and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t going right, how do we fix this?’ None of that ever happened,” Tedder said. “I would love to go back. … but there needs to be a more professional work environment where people can sit down at a table together.”

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The termination of the town manager has left the town split. While some are calling it the right decision, some are inspecting the matter as a "race issue" given that Jones is Black - in contrast to the small-town police department, which is entirely White. Meanwhile, it is still not clear if the officials who handed over their resignation will be returning to their posts now that Jones no longer is employed by the city — it was one of the core demands made before they left their posts. Jones is expected to finish her work as town manager by the end of this week and then will receive a severance package of about $50,000, which is half of her salary plus benefits.

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