A 'HOSTILE TAKEOVER' OR PLAN FOR SILER CITY'S PROSPERITY?

‘Unity’ bloc pledges prosperity, but raises red flags for some

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SILER CITY — Even in the often upside-down world of local politics, it was clear that Siler City’s 2021 municipal elections would be particularly unusual.

Now that they’re finally happening — here in the spring of 2022, after COVID-impacted Census data collection delayed it — the races have turned especially odd.

The Stranger Things-esque plotlines feature four newcomers to Siler City, running as a bloc, making sometimes outlandish charges against the town’s current board of commissioners. They’ve also made audacious pledges to bring prosperity to the town, including a $100 million privately funded affordable housing loan, a promise to cap costs for residents who rent apartments or homes, and a plan to revitalize health care here by bringing two urgent care centers to Siler City and “seven or eight” clinics from Duke University Health Systems.

And that was even before Saturday’s online revelation — on the candidates’ “Unity 2022” website, at unity2022.org — of a list of more than 70 additional proposals addressing community prosperity, inclusivity, sustainability, public safety and housing access for Siler City.

The group — mayoral candidate Nick Gallardo and town commissioner candidates Dean Picot II, Jared Picot and Samuel Williams, all new to Siler City — each registered to vote in Chatham County only over this past winter. They don’t say how they’ll pay for the proposals or provide much detail on how they’ll execute them, and their sudden appearance, bold pronouncements and vague hints about malfeasance occurring within the town’s board have raised red flags with locals.

But it gets stranger.

• A new “Save Our Siler” Facebook page created by a group of local residents in response to the “Unity” ticket drew a number of concerned comments over the weekend before it was taken down sometime Sunday for violating the social media site’s “community guidelines” for content. One of the page’s creators says community members worry about a “hostile takeover” of Siler City; one of the Unity candidates later took credit for having the page removed from Facebook.

(Editor's note: the page, which can be found here, is now back up again.)

• A video made during an April 24 candidate forum at First Missionary Baptist Church, where the quartet spoke, has been removed from the video-sharing platform YouTube, likely related to complaints from Unity candidates. During the forum, Dean Picot II suggested Siler City’s current elected board was telling “lies, lies, lies,” among other facile claims.

• An exchange on the social media platform NextDoor between a Siler City resident and one of the candidates resulted in accusations of “borderline slander,” and with the candidate in question saying the town’s leadership “have not for decades lived up to the vision that this beautiful town was created on.”

• Competing, perhaps warring, Twitter sites — the Unity bloc’s “Save Siler” (@SaveSiler)’s profile reads “Saving #silercity from the tyranny of a neglectful ruling class,” while a “Save Our Siler” (@OurSiler) site, which was created first, being promoted as “A concerned group of Siler City residents (determined) to expose a self appointed billionaire’s quest to take over our town.”

• And on Monday night, following Siler City’s board of commissioners meeting, the group’s apparent patron — Courtney Jordan, a Durham resident touted as a “billionaire entrepreneur” — was involved in a shouting match with candidate James “Jay” Underwood. The encounter drew the attention of Siler City Police Chief Mike Wagner, who attended the meeting and called for support from his staff as Jordan and Underwood argued outside Wren Memorial Library, where the meeting was held.

No charges were filed, but it added another bizarre layer to the town’s municipal election, which will be held May 17 as part of the state’s primary election cycle.

The Unity Candidates

Nick Gallardo, 23, the Texas-born, Raleigh-raised mayoral candidate, is on the ballot to replace the late John Grimes, a beloved local businessman who died in office in October 2020 and whose seat wasn’t filled. Gallardo is seeking office along with sitting At-Large Commissioner Thomas “Chip” Price III and local pastor Donald Matthews.

The Picots — Dean “Jr.” and Jared, who are related but apparently not brothers — are seeking the At-Large and Dist. 5 seats, respectively. Dean Picot, a substance abuse counselor, is facing Underwood, who had the row with Jordan, and incumbent Cindy Bray; Jared Picot, who describes himself as an entrepreneur, faces Dist. 5 incumbent Lewis Fadely and Rayetta Fox. And Samuel Williams, a New York native, pastor and self-described hospital manager, faces Albert Alston for the Dist. 1 seat.

Williams, echoing statements made by the others, says the Unity group has the potential to make significant positive changes in its adopted home.

“We as a group (if elected) will have the unified ability to shape the progression of Siler City as a whole,” he said. “We, however, are not an extension of any one organization. But as a friend group, we have invested our free time in volunteering with the various organizations that are on the front lines of providing the necessary resources to live and thrive in a circumstance that is less favorable. No one organization or movement defines me as a candidate. It is my passion for healing and seeing my fellow man rise out of the pits of despair and inequity that push and motivate me.”

Similar statements can be found on the group’s website — unity2022.org — and on the candidates’ individual sites. On its Twitter feed (@unity4silercity), the group wrote on Friday: “Our children and teens are the most important asset that any community has. At present the city is not doing enough to implement the needed solutions to combat the mass exudes of our youth upon graduation or dropping out. Additionally, our young adults are not adequately prepared to face the changing world. Going into debt for a four year degree is no longer he (sic) answer — he (sic) same programs and old ways of thinking are no longer viable, I am uniquely qualified to address the youth crisis of our young people for more information on how and other solutions.”

On a new website released Tuesday — savesiler.org, apparently designed in response to the “Save Our Siler” Facebook page — one statement reads: “These people have sat there, and just done nothing that has help (sic) us the people … Do you know most of this board has been in office for close to 10 years? ??? Fadley (sic) being the exception!”

Statements like that, along with brazen pronouncements and pledges and the backing of Courtney Jordan have raised eyebrows among locals.

“Everyone is talking about these folks and their grandiose non-binding pledges, which seem opportunist at best since everyone knows there are major businesses headed this way,” said De de St. Aubin Jr., a lifelong Siler City native and resident whose family is redeveloping property in downtown Siler City. “Why are these guys really here? The bottom line is there is one guy with questionable intentions running four young guys who all just happened to move here mere months ago — had any of them even heard of Siler City before moving? No one thinking rationally can say that doesn’t throw up red flags.”

The “Save Our Siler” Facebook page contained a number of similar posts and comments until it was taken down. One of the page’s creators told the News + Record residents were concerned about a “hostile takeover” of Siler City by the group.

“We created the Facebook page ‘Save Our Siler’ because we are concerned about our local elections being manipulated by an out-of-town billionaire, armed with puppet candidates and even a fake media site,” the person said. “We were slowly revealing all of the information discovered by several local citizens through their own independent research before we were suspiciously banned by Facebook as soon as we started to gain a diverse following of Siler City residents.”

The speaker said they and others who put the page together “wish to remain anonymous due to fear of retribution from a potential City Council that may hold grudges against us should they take power.”

The “Save Our Siler” group spoke of its own unity in sounding the alarm about the bloc of candidates as the election neared.

“We are delighted to see citizens of Siler City come together — many of whom have not agreed on anything for some time in order to repulse a hostile takeover of our town,” the person said. “We wish to carry on the struggle … As you know, time is of the essence and the consequences could not be more dramatic. We will not endorse any candidate but will work tirelessly to ensure that the people of Siler City with our unique culture and our acute happiness will not go quietly into the night.”

The candidates’ sudden appearance in Siler City and statements concerned local resident Alex Hauser, who, in a post shared on NextDoor directed at Dean Picot II, said: “I truly hope that most people will not be swindled by the false promises and will see through the collective four as what they truly are: opportunists. You all have never lived in Siler City, are all recent college graduates, and are all funded by an outside investor who is a billionaire. You see Siler as an opportunity because industry and high paying jobs will likely be coming and if you can get in the government before they arrive, you can then claim responsibility. Why else promise all the high paying jobs? Why declare that you will resign if this doesn’t happen? It is a logical speculation that your group knows something and wishes to capitalize. Yet, unfortunately, you claim you care for the people of Siler and you have never lived here. You all registered with the board of elections immediately before the deadline. Is that just a coincidence?”

Hauser asked in the post: “Why would 4 people, who never lived in Siler city till just a few months ago, all of a sudden be running for office? It is incredible that you all are doing what career politicians do even before being elected into office. I will see to it that you do not succeed and raise awareness of the dangers of your potential policies. Of course, you do not see your proposed policies as having imminent failures, but history absolutely begs to differ.”

In a post on medium.com, an idea-exchange platform for writers and others, Dean Picot wrote that Hauser “has been the chief pusher of misinformation and hate filled vitriol that has been heralded at myself and the other diverse group of people running to effect the needed change in Siler City, located in Chatham County NC.”

In the same post, Dean Picot described a multitude of problems in Siler City, including rampant drug use, escalating crime and poverty, and said: “Most of these problems could and should have been fixed or altogether avoided easily under the ‘watchful eye’ of the current elected officials. Especially that of my opponent” — incumbent Cindy Bray — “who has held office in Siler City since 2009.”

He also wrote that the Unity candidates are “not attacking any individual or making enemies with people who have a history, hard work and a legacy for community building. In fact, our policies are about inclusivity, inclusivity of all and attacking none. Most of our development plans include any homegrown and current developers and builders putting money in their hands through multiple grants that our grant researchers have seen that have gone overlooked by the city for years.”

Transparency?

Some of the Unity candidates have been attending Siler City town board meetings; the group website, which provides links to each of the individual candidates’ websites, contains group photos, stylized drone videos of the suit-clad group walking in downtown Siler City and various statements from each. But it’s what they’ve said in other settings that has contributed to the concerns of some local residents.

For example: for someone who listed “transparency” as one of his primary campaign platforms in the candidate forum on April 24, Samuel Williams, the Dist. 1 candidate, has misspoken often.

In responses to a questionnaire he provided to the News + Record, Williams didn’t provide a home address. On a state website, a church he says he pastors provides its address as a small apartment off of Western Boulevard in Raleigh.

In addition, he listed his occupation as “Hospital Management,” and at last Sunday’s forum, held at First Missionary Baptist Church, he touted his experience in health care.

“My first thing I want to talk about is health care,” Williams told the assembled group. “Well, before I get to there, so I also work at Duke University Hospital. I’ve been there for about six years, and I’ve worked really hard. I’ve started from the bottom, and I worked myself up to the top. So I’m one of the big managers over there, one of the ‘head honchos.’”

In addition to being one of the system’s “head honchos,” Williams wrote on his website, “I am a Manager at Duke University Health Systems where I supervised seven clinics.”

In an email exchange with the News + Record, Sarah Avery, the director of the Duke Health News Office, provided links to Duke Health’s five leadership teams — which consists of more than 100 listed individuals with designations of MDs and PhDs or MBAs after their names.

Williams wasn’t among them, and Avery said he doesn’t supervise seven clinics.

“Samuel Williams is currently a service access manager at the Duke Gastroenterology Clinic at Brier Creek,” Avery told the News + Record last Thursday. “Mr. Williams’ tenure with Duke began in 2016. In 2021, he became a Service Access Manager at the GI, Infusion and Specialty Clinic at Brier Creek, where he supervises the Patient Access Counselors and Financial Care Counselors within that one building.”

She didn’t confirm whether Williams was part of any leadership team within the system.

As to Williams’ claim that he was “already in conversation with Duke University” to bring two urgent care centers to Siler City — “one’s going to be in our low-income area, and one’s going to be in our city center” — and his promise to bring “about seven or eight clinics” from Duke here, that also seems to be false, according to Avery.

“While Duke University Health System is always assessing potential areas for new growth, it has no current plans to open clinics or urgent care centers in the Siler City area,” Avery told the News + Record.

In a follow-up email, she reiterated: “There are no discussions or plans to open clinics or urgent care centers in Siler City at this time.”

Multiple telephone calls to Williams over a period of several days and multiple email messages to him seeking specific comments about his plans and Duke University Health System’s responses were not returned.

On Tuesday, Duke’s Avery confirmed that Williams was no longer employed there.

Williams, Gallardo said in an email message to the News + Record, had been working with colleagues on bringing in clinics, but “out of anxiety he spoke for a corporate entity without their approval,” and confirmed he has since resigned.

Other comments Williams made during his four-minute address at the candidate forum have drawn attention as well. He said he and his running mates planned to “put a cap on affordable rent, so that your rent will stay the same,” and joined some of his running mates in chiding Siler City’s town government for spending “$50 to $60 million” in March.

Siler City’s fiscal budget for all of 2021-22 was only $17,666,428; its proposed budget for 2022-23 is $19,173,063, according information provided by the town.

“Spending $50 million in one month is high even for a city like Charlotte,” said Interim Town Manager Bill Zell, who told the News + Record Siler City’s March expenditures were $729,971.65.

The admittedly nervous Williams — who, in his remarks at the forum couldn’t recall the names of the other three “Unity” candidates — wrapped up his statement by reminding the audience he’d signed a pledge, in his first year, to help bring “100 high-paying jobs of $40,000 or more,” saying those 100 jobs were already in the works.

Someone in the audience pointed out his gaffe, and Williams corrected himself to say the group would deliver 1,000 new jobs, not 100.

Other problems within Siler City

Other statements the group made at Sunday’s forum:

• Gallardo: “For 30 years, I think that there has been a certain level of incompetence” in Siler City, he said, adding that crime and drugs have put “a cloud” over the town.

• Jared Picot: “There’s real problems here” in Siler City, he said. “I’m running with Dean Jr., Nick and Sam because we all have a special ability to get things solved in this town, to not let anyone fall behind. That’s exactly what we’re focused on. We’re tired of seeing what’s happening in this town. And it’s unacceptable.”

• Dean Picot II: “It is without a doubt that we need change. It’s been known for a long time. Without a doubt.”

“I mean, you know, $50 million in the month of March?” he said, speaking about the town’s spending. “I mean, where’d that money come from? I don’t know. You know, all I know is that you can go online and find it in the agenda meetings, right? You can literally go to TownofSilerCity.org, and you can see all the stuff they talked about. You know, it’s all there. So it’s just lies, lies, lies. And these people are lying to you. I’m not a politician, just a guy. Politician — I don’t want to be called that because that word is dirty. These people are doing you guys dirty. And it’s just gonna keep getting worse and worse until you vote them out and vote the Unity ticket.”

Gallardo, in a separate interview for a story for the News + Record’s La Voz de Chatham project, acknowledged the skepticism he and his running mates have faced.

“Unfortunately, yes, I have,” he said. “I won’t go in any detail, but I’ve definitely received a good amount of text messages. There’s definitely a lot of pushback, and even speaking to friends that I made here and stuff, they tell me, ‘Yeah, if you’re not from here, they definitely make sure you feel like an outsider.’”

“Just because I’m not from here doesn’t mean I’m not for prosperity in this area,” Gallardo continued. “I mean, I may not be from Siler City, but I am for Siler City, and I think that we should welcome people coming in.”

He echoed statements made by others about Siler City’s and Chatham’s coming growth.

“We are in a time right now where we need to be progressive, we need to put ourselves in the right position, because change is coming,” he said. “We’re in a pivotal moment where we could set ourselves up for success, or people that come in could really hurt some families here, and I don’t want to see that happen.”

But Gallardo also said the town’s current elected body needs change and more transparency.

“Who we elect to represent us and who we are and what our best interests are … and if you don’t have our best interests at mind,” he said, “or if you’re not doing the things that you say you’re going to do, or you’re recklessly spending money, who is that benefiting?”

Group has ‘no clue’

Comments like that have drawn the ire of others seeking office, including At-Large Commissioner Price, who’s running against Gallardo for mayor.

“It is obvious that this Unity group has no clue of what actually goes on in Siler City,” he told the News + Record. “The yearly budget is only $18 million, and there is no way the town could have spent $50 million in one month. There is also a financial audit done every year by an outside firm, and there have not been any irregularities reported during my time on the board. It appears this group is just throwing things out there to see if anything will stick. They appear to be more interested in creating division rather than promoting unity and inclusion.”

Price also questioned the “agenda” the Unity candidates say the current board has.

“I have no idea what he is referring to as the ‘agenda,’” he said. “The only agenda the current board has ever had is to do what is in the best interest of all citizens and create an environment for all to prosper using the available financial resources. How could he have any idea what Siler City values are when he has only lived here a total of three months?”

Gallardo says he’s lived in Siler City for a year and a half.

Price said after reading through the group’s proposals for the town, he saw many there which were already being implemented.

He also wondered how the rest would be accomplished.

“I roughly counted an additional 25 people that would have to be added to town staff to accomplish the items listed,” he said. “There was also no mention of where the additional funding would be coming from and what effect it would have on the tax rate. There are also some proposals that I have questions as to whether they are legal or constitutional for the town to participate in. If Mr. Gallardo claims to be so concerned with the issues of Siler City, I am unclear as to why he is waiting for the election to proceed with any of his plans. I am not aware of any interest that he has taken with the Town of Siler City before he filed for election, including attending monthly board meetings.”

Others, like de St. Aubin, are concerned over how the candidates and Jordan — who openly heckled non-Unity party candidates at the April 24 forum — have “gone after” those who disagree with them.

“The way these guys went after Alec Hauser — a tax-paying citizen — for asking questions about people running for public office is just a bully tactic designed to scare everyone else into submission,” de St. Aubin said. “It’s appalling but not surprising really. Did anyone actually think they where just going to let some guy down the street like Alec get in their way and muck up their plans? Not in a billion years. This is David versus Goliath, and I applaud Alec for speaking up.”

StartUp Siler

The Unity group has also become associated with StartUp Siler, an organization which describes itself as focused on entrepreneurship education and development. The candidates’ registrations follow the opening in December of StartUp Siler’s East Raleigh Street office in downtown Siler City. Jared Picot is named on the organization’s website as a business analyst.

StartUp Siler is a project of the Courtney Jordan Foundation, according to an online news release from the foundation. According to an article on the Durham Voice, a grassroots community news site in which the journalism programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University are involved, Jordan is a North Carolina Central University graduate who wrote a facial recognition security app, which was later sold to Microsoft, and then used the proceeds to fund other investments.

A story on the website Outlook India pegged Jordan’s net worth at $1.1 billion, but he’s not included on any state or national news or business publication’s lists of North Carolina billionaires — most of which limit that number to five.

StartUp Siler opened in December, according to Executive Director Kristen Picot, who said Jared Picot is her brother. She said Dean Picot is her brother. Dean Picot said in an email that he is related to Jared and Kristen but did not elaborate.

In addition to entrepreneurship assistance and coaching, StartUp Siler seeks to establish a STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, program in conjunction with area schools, a youth news program online and perhaps in print, and a college scholarship for an area resident, Kristen Picot said.

“Our main thing is to foster entrepreneurship and help entrepreneurs along the way,” she said. “Entrepreneurship is like a race, right? So we help people — early stages, middle stages, what have you. We just basically believe in pushing the limit, pushing, pushing their dream, challenging, seeing what they can do.”

Kristen Picot said StartUp Siler is a major initiative of the foundation and follows a similar effort in Durham that has since shut down.

‘People are in need’

In an interview at StartUp Siler’s office last week, Jordan told the News + Record he established the initiative because Siler City has a high poverty rate and great disparity in economic fortunes.

“What I want to do, and what I believe in, is that people are in need, and they are, they’re hurting, and for the basic things, and you can put a Band Aid on a problem,” he said. “But unless you’re willing to do the work to go in there, do the surgery that’s needed to cauterize the wound, they’re going to keep bleeding. So we believe in short term, but also providing long-term substantive solutions to their problems.”

Jordan’s organization is not registered with the federal government as a tax-exempt organization because it does not take donations, Jordan said. Such tax-exempt groups are often referred to as a “501c(3)” for the section of federal tax rules under which many nonprofit groups accepting tax-exempt donations operate.

“Is this a political front? No, no, it doesn’t need to be a front because I have no 501c(3), I take no outside donations,” Jordan said. “If someone wants to give us money, I tell them, buy a gift card and give it. We have a list in our office; give it to them. If you like the good work we’re doing, give it to them. I don’t need your money.”

Jordan, however, said he agrees with the Unity slate’s take on economic and poverty issues, and spoke highly also of two other candidates, Lewis Fadely and Rayetta Fox.

Another Chatham County activity in which Jordan is involved is Chathamweekly.com, which boasts of a magazine that “reaches the doorstep of more than 40,000 residents in Chatham County, NC.”

According to a March online press release, the publication is owned by Neyius Media, a subsidiary of Neyius Inc., whose founder and executive chairman is Jordan. Neyius Media LLC was registered with the North Carolina secretary of state on March 15. It features primarily celebrity news and other online aggregation, but it also has one local story, an article announcing Kristen Picot’s appointment with StartUp Siler; a feature story on Dean Picot II once on the site has disappeared.

Jordan, without prompting, acknowledged speculation in Siler City that he may be interested in getting a foothold in a community ripe for industrial development and residential growth but denied that is his motivation in StartUp Siler.

“I’m very transparent about this initially, when we did the market research, and we saw the rapid rate of growth here,” he said. “Of course, as a businessman, I’m looking at it and saying yeah, I can probably develop some land here and get a return on that. But I’m willing to forgo that after I hear about people who are sitting around crying and don’t even have, can’t even afford to drive outside of Siler City to take their baby to the pediatrician. I’m sorry, my conscience is worth more to me than some new buildings, and development and land and all that because you can check I have not in my name purchased any land for development yet.”

Working in ‘under-resourced’ areas

In response to a series of questions posed by the News + Record to the group through its website, a rambling email message came in response — mixing “I,” “we” and “they,” as if written by someone other than the candidates themselves. Like the plans on the group’s website, the message was short on details, but it did reinforce a desire to bring prosperity to Siler City.

“If elected they would revisit those plans [which address sidewalk projects] to add on to them bike lanes, which would allow access to more grant funding the town would qualify, which would help reduce Siler City’s carbon footprint, in addition to providing safer avenues for people without cars to travel,” the response said. “Specifically, in reference to the more under-resourced areas of the town, they plan to work closely with many of the grantors the town has and will receive grants from to use money to help improve the facades of their homes, and with many of the development grants and land use agreements that will come in divert money to improving the sidewalks.”

The message also reiterates the group’s plan to “introduce a $45MM bond” — presumably $45 million — “to secure funding for the construction of affordable housing in Siler City.”

The writer said “rent controls,” as proposed by Gallardo and Williams, would be “a viable option once elected.”

“They [the candidates] would be able to work with the more progressive state legislatures to enact that change,” the reply said. “However, until that happens the town council if elected would work closely with the landlords and builders to incentive them to work with current citizens on providing lower rates. Such incentives, within the power of the town would be tax breaks, subsidies, and directing town funds to be placed in the hands of local developers first to help insure (sic) their neighbors are not displaced.”

Gallardo, in response to an inquiry from the News + Record, said in an email that the Unity ticket’s plan is to restructure the town budget and bring in money from overlooked grants. He said the slate has received a written pledge from a private equity firm he did not identify that will commit to $150 million in investment in local developers, and would use tax credits and subsidies to lower building costs. Further, the plan is to partner with other local governments to lobby for revising the anti-rent control law.

As for handling of town money, Gallardo said it’s more mismanagement than misappropriation.

“I’m not here to say that anyone has done anything wrong,” he said. “I’m here to say that the way things have been managed have not led to widespread growth and prosperity, but led to picket signs outside city hall with tears and cries to the mayor and council to please do something to change life for us.”

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  • TLLucas

    BRAVO...Bill Horner, David Hill and News & Record Staff for so thoroughly and skillfully showing why local newspapers must stay alive. An outstanding article and research on this "questionable" group of candidates and the real puppeteers in politics. Thank you for an outstanding piece of reporting.

    Friday, May 6 Report this