Update: The group has rescheduled its meeting time. It is now Aug. 10, a Wednesday, at 7 p.m. The change happened after the Herald Weekly's deadline.

by Frank DeLoache

DAVIDSON – Their critics reportedly labeled them the “River Run Tea Party.”

But when 40 to 50 people crowded into the foyer of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church last week, they said they represented different political ideologies and communities all over town, including River Run, McConnell, Lake Davidson Park, Westmoreland and Bradford, “where the two houses are,” a Bradford woman added with a smile.

Those two houses, purchased by the Davidson town board for the town’s Affordable Housing Program, provided the spark that ignited a growing group of residents who question how the town board operates. Over and over, speakers at the meeting questioned the board’s spending priorities and what they perceive as the commissioners’ unwillingness to conduct town business and make decisions in public.

Commissioners approved spending $280,000 on the two houses at the end of a closed session on June 14, after Mayor John Woods had announced the end of the regular town board meeting. The board convened an open session long enough to approve the purchase and then return to closed session.

At Tuesday’s town board meeting, Woods took responsibility for the confusion and said he had not intended for the board to vote that night, but board members approved it to get families in those houses before the start of school.

That explanation does not appear to have satisfied the group now calling itself the Davidson Coalition for Fiscal Responsibility. Rick Short, one of the original members of the group, observed that the number meeting Wednesday, June 13, at St. Alban’s had quadrupled from the previous two meetings of 10 to 12 people.

When Pam Pearson, the meeting’s moderator, asked how many people belong to the Tea Party, about a dozen raised their hands. Pearson observed the group has Republicans, Democrats and independents, as well as people who have lived in Davidson anywhere from 1 to 50 years.

Some, such as former Mayor Randy Kincaid, were there to observe.

One of the more strident voices in the audience didn’t miss the opportunity to target Kincaid as one of the leaders responsible for the town’s “social engineering.”

The same critic said town voters need to dump the entire board.

But no one applauded his remarks, and Pearson was careful to say that members of the group may very well disagree about which candidates to support. And coalition leaders want to avoid becoming identified as a group behind one candidate. For that reason, Vince Winegardner, who was a key initial organizer and spokesman, has stepped out of that role because he’s running for mayor against Woods.

But Pearson said as coalition committee already has interviewed Commissioners Brian Jenest and Tim Dreffer (Dreffer is not seeking re-election) and hopes to identify candidates who share the members’ concerns. In turn, coalition members are pledging to work to get them elected.

Two major issues that dominated last week’s conversation:

• Transparency and openness. Besides the board’s unannounced purchase of the two Bradford homes, multiple speakers said the board does much of its business outside the view of the public and too often reaches a 5-0 consensus on issues by the time the board meets in public.

Some speakers criticized the system used by the board where two members meet on different days almost weekly with Town Manager Leamon Brice or members of his staff to discuss issues in advance. By meeting in twos, the board members avoid the N.C. Public Meetings Law and do not have to open the discussion to the public. The law requires public discussion if there is a quorum of commissioners in attendance.

Coalition members say the board’s consensus mindset – or “group think” – has led to bad decisions.

• What to do about MI-Connection, the broadband company that has saddled the towns with almost $90 million in debt. A majority of speakers at the June 13 meeting said they see no sense in rehashing why the town board eschewed a referendum and voted to buy MI-Connection.

But almost unanimously, those present are worried about what to do with MI-Connection in the future. “There are people not coming to this community because we have so much debt,” River Run resident John Allen said. They’re concerned about the tax load that Davidson residents may have to shoulder in the future.

One woman said that MI-Connection is “a ball and chain” on the town.

That was too much for Laurie Venzon, the only town commissioner who attended the meeting. Venzon interrupted to say statements about debt and the town’s obligations were inaccurate – see related article, page 19 – and that leaders of the towns and MI-Connection have a strategy to rescue MI-Connection.

“There is a way out of this,” Venzon said. “It is not a ball and chain, or I wouldn’t be working so hard with my husband and others to get out of it.”

John Venzon chairs the board of MI-Connection, and his wife said the board has acquired members and staff who understand how cable companies work. She said the company is having success penetrating the Cornelius market because MI-Connection has a good product.

But several speakers, including Mark Simonian, who works for 3M, are concerned that technology is moving too fast for MI-Connection, with limited resources, to keep up. Simonian said he spoke recently to a cable system executive in Atlanta who said private companies are having a hard time keeping up with changes with wireless communications.

More than one speaker said they want to see candidates willing to develop “an exit strategy” for getting the town out of MI-Connection.

Anyone interested in attending should email DCFR.contact@gmail.com or contact the group through Facebook or Twitter (@dcfr_contact).