By Connie Leinbach
The Ocracoke community is buzzing over the firings Friday of 11 N.C. Ferry Division workers at the Silver Lake Ferry terminal operations.
Word was out over the weekend after seven career employees and four temporary employees were dismissed.
Among those fired are Albert O’Neal, 44, ferry operations manager II and 27-year employee, and Scotty Robinson, 54, a ferry master.
According to information sent Monday by Ferry Division Information Officer Tim Hass, the four temporary employees NCDOT were dismissed for “unacceptable personal conduct” as of June 10 were: Leland Yeomans, 66, security guard; James Gaskill, 24, general utility worker; Tyler Hamilton, 18, ferry crew member I; Alexander Chadwick, 23, ferry crew member II.
In addition to O’Neal and Robinson, the other career state employees fired from NCDOT as of June 10 are Robert Samson, Jr., 41, ferry crew member I; Kevin Styron, age 36, ferry chief engineer; Casey Tolson, 20, ferry crew member II; Rickey Tillett, 56, processing assistant III; and Michael Daniels, 20, ferry crew member II.
Hass did not give a reason for the termination of these career employees.
Although there is talk in the community about the reasons for the firings, the Ocracoke Observer did not receive any reasons from Hass nor if a less severe action was explored.
“There is an appeals process for all permanent state employees,” Hass said in an email. “NCDOT cannot release any additional information until these career state employees exhaust their state personnel appeal rights.”
Monday (yesterday) was timely for more islanders to attend the monthly meeting in the Ocracoke Community Center with ferry officials to question the firings, but they did not get answers from Jed Dixon, deputy Ferry Division director, or Chris Bock, Hatteras operations superintendent, who attended for the ferry division.
Dixon told the more than two dozen attendees, including O’Neal and Robinson, that he could not comment on the action.
“There is an open-ended personnel matter we’re not going to discuss,” Dixon said before discussion began.
“This is our community,” said islander Cindy Gaskill. “Why didn’t Ed Goodwin come down to this meeting? This is a witch hunt.”
Goodwin is the Ferry Division chief who reportedly fired the 11 ferry workers.
When John Fletcher, the county commissioner representing Ocracoke, asked if the firings would affect any of the Hatteras runs, Dixon said they would not.
About the Hatteras ferry operations, Dixon said they are using seven boats now: five smaller ferries and two larger ones. Last year they used four large ones and two small boats.
A third larger boat will be ready for service at the end of June, Bock said.
Dixon also said that although the ferry division was contracted recently by Dare County to do a dredge project in the Hatteras Inlet, that area has already filled in.
“They requested us to do it again,” Dixon said, but the worst shoaling is in a section of the channel the state is not responsible for.
Dixon and other officials have said repeatedly that the worst area of shoaling in the inlet is controlled by the federal government and managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.
That part of the channel can only be dredged to 100 feet wide. It would take federal legislation passed to double the size of that dredgable area.
As for the return of the short route directly across the inlet to Ocracoke, Dixon said the ferry division did a study on that and determined that 100 million cubic yards of sand would have to be removed to accomplish that, not to mention environmental concerns.
Although Dixon said there is no official ferry division liaison to the Waterways Commission, he attends those meetings on his own..
As for the passenger feasibility study, Dixon reported that he hopes he can release it at the July 11 meeting that study director Will Letchworth will attend.
“We haven’t been able to get it in front of the Transportation Board,” he said about the study. “It keeps getting pushed back. I can’t bring it to you until they approve it.”
Last year, Ferry Division officials said the feasibility study would be done by December.
Darlene Styron, owner of the Sweet Tooth, said that passenger ferries are not the long term solution.
“Can we survive with four passenger ferries and four vehicle ferries?” she asked.
Last week, that traffic was backed up badly last week at the ferry dock—all the way to the Liberty gas station, Styron continued.
“This is a bad situation,” she said. “It’s crippling Ocracoke and it’s a hardship. With a noticeable difference in the number of cars here in a day, (business owners) can see it.”
“Passenger ferries don’t help the residents who need to go up the beach three or four times a week,” said islander Stephanie O’Neal, sister of Albert O’Neal. “This has been going on for so long and there’s no solution. There’s no short route. There’s not enough boats. Nothing’s been done and nobody’s coming to the public to tell them.”
Now, instead of dredging the Hatteras Inlet or refurbishing the ferries, the NC DOT is working on the Bonner Bridge, the Rodanthe Bridge, the Morehead City bridge, Styron said.
“We’re still in this crisis mode,” she said. “We’ve been fighting this ferry crap for five years.”
She also urged a more positive approach.
“There’s a lot of ‘we can’t,'” she said. “We need to think about what we ‘can’ do.”
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