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Monroe shelves drone project

Debra Duncan
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Debra Duncan, Monroe police chief

Monroe officials have decided to shelve controversial plans to buy a mini drone for the police department, and it is unclear whether they will proceed with the purchase.

Police Chief Debra Duncan and city spokesman Pete Hovanec said the city, which recently started to work on its own policies for the device, wanted the delay while the state legislature dealt with the issue. Hovanec said the City Council also had faced pressure from residents concerned about privacy issues.

In an odd twist, two council members cited another reason why they voted last week to table the plan: When Duncan brought the project to the board March 5, she cited a local company involved with drones. But after that meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Lynn Keziah and councilwoman Margaret Desio said, the board learned the company’s owner had served time in prison.

Condor Aerial Optics founder Fred Culbertson served about 3 1/2 months in state prison in 2007 on a charge of obtaining property by false pretense, state records show.

Culbertson addressed the council several times at the March 5 meeting, minutes show. Police Lt. David Morton told the board that because Condor was based in Monroe, it could cut the city a deal on the cost of a drone, minutes show.

Culbertson told the Observer he had been asked by the city to do some consulting on the topic, which he did not charge the city for, but at no point was there any deal to buy a drone from Condor. In fact, he said, his company is currently involved in research and development and is not selling drones at this time.

Culbertson said City Council members were making him a scapegoat in their ongoing quarrels with the chief.

When the City Council unanimously voted to table the drone program, Keziah stated there were concerns whether the drones would be well-received by the public and that there were “concerns with Condor’s involvement with the equipment,” minutes show.

In an interview, Keziah said a city attorney recognized Culbertson at the March 5 meeting from her time at the district attorney’s office and told the interim city manager about Culbertson’s record after the meeting ended.

Keziah said he did not appreciate being surprised by Culbertson’s record. Desio agreed, saying, “We were greatly misled by the chief.”

Duncan denied misleading anyone. “This is a nonissue that someone wants to make into an issue,” she said. “There was no contract (with Condor), and no money changed hands. No harm, no foul.”

She said she was unaware of Culbertson’s background before the March 5 meeting, but that the city does not do criminal checks on vendors. Besides, she said, Culbertson was an unpaid consultant.

In fact, she said, Culbertson pointed her staff to a Florida company, Prioria Robotics, that could provide the type of drone the city was looking for. Duncan said she researched Prioria to confirm it was a company in good standing. She also said Prioria assured her no funds would go to Culbertson as part of any deal with the city.

The use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, remains a hot topic around the state and nation.

Monroe was interested in using the device for community safety, such as at crime scenes, searches or natural disasters. But civil libertarians, politicians and others have raised privacy and related concerns about their use.

A bill introduced this month in the N.C. House would put significant limits on drone use and require a search warrant in most cases before it can be deployed. The bill was referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House. Researcher Marion Paynter contributed

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