Fayetteville, N.C. — A minor traffic accident has turned into a major political mess for Mayor Tony Chavonne and City Manager Dale Iman.
Three cars were involved in an Oct. 25 wreck at the intersection of Stoney Point and Gillis Hill roads. Officer Jennifer Rodriguez, of the Fayetteville Police Department, cited Diana Knight for running a red light after getting conflicting accounts of the incident from witnesses.
Knight's husband, Gary Knight, the deputy garrison commander at Fort Bragg before he retired, called Chavonne that evening to complain, saying he thought police were rushing to judgment. After Chavonne and Iman visited Diana Knight in Cape Fear Valley Medical Center that night – she was injured in the wreck – the ticket was voided and police reopened the investigation.
Another driver, 21-year-old Jamell Jones, was subsequently charged with running a red light in the case.
City Councilman Curtis Worthy said Chavonne and Iman overstepped their authority, giving special treatment to a friend while second-guessing an experienced police officer.
"The appearance of wrongdoing – just the very appearance – means we shouldn't do it," Worthy said. “Let the court decide that you’re guilty or not, and that’s the way it should have been handled."
Chavonne owes the public an apology, Worthy said.
The mayor declined to comment on the incident, saying he would discuss it at a City Council meeting next Tuesday. Iman said he was in meetings all day and couldn't discuss the case.
Fayetteville Police Chief Tom Bergamine wasn't available for comment, and Gary and Diana Knight couldn't be reached for comment.
"Everyone is angry about this incident," said Myron Pitts, a columnist for The Fayetteville Observer who has written about the controversy.
“The majority of witnesses, including this third driver, thought Diana Knight was at fault in the accident. So, there’s going to be conflicting accounts,” Pitts said. “That’s going to be in most accidents. The point is that the rest of us would have had to just muddle through the conflicting accounts."
"That implies that every ticket should not be given because there's not adequate time to determine at a scene who's at fault," Worthy said.
Iman has said publicly that he would have done the same thing for anyone in a similar situation, but Pitts called that statement nonsense.
“Anyone, I think, with a functioning brain knows that’s not practical for the mayor and city manager to be involved in every accident that goes on in the city of Fayetteville,” he said.
The issue drew a lone protester to City Hall on Wednesday. Mike Mansfield scrawled the words "Justice Must Not Die" on a slip of paper.
"How can we trust their judgment from now on? The mayor? The city manager? The police chief?" Mansfield asked.