Local Politics

Mayor calls on Rocky Mount officials singled out in state audit to correct misdeeds

Posted May 18, 2020 12:40 p.m. EDT
Updated May 23, 2020 4:03 p.m. EDT

— A councilman should resign, the city manager should repay her improper spending and the City Council should sign a pledge to do right by Rocky Mount taxpayers, Mayor Sandy Roberson said Monday.

A scathing state audit released last Friday has given Rocky Mount, once known as a "city on the rise," a black eye, Roberson said, and city leaders need to earn back the trust of residents.

The investigation, which was prompted by more than 200 calls to the State Auditor's Office hotline, found that various Rocky Mount officials intervened in 2013 and 2017 to write off $47,704 in delinquent utility bills for a City Council member so that his service wouldn't be disconnected.

The audit also found that Rocky Mount officials didn't follow guidelines for programs designed to help downtown businesses by failing to collect $32,452 in loan payments and awarding $28,000 to ineligible recipients. Some of the properties were owned or managed by city officials, including council members Reuben Blackwell and Andre Knight and utilities official Garland Clark.

Also, City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney spent $1,575 over the allowed amount for travel and meals between July 2016 and May 2019, including "lobster and steak dinners ... and an individual steamed seafood bucket." Small-Toney claimed to be exempt from the city's per diem limits due to an unspecified medical condition.

"Rocky Mount needs to change, and we need to start right now to rise above those misdeeds and become the city of excellence which I know to be our birthright," Roberson said.

The mayor has drafted what he termed a "contract with Rocky Mount" that he hopes each City Council member will sign at an emergency meeting planned for Thursday.

"In this era of official evasion, posturing and finger pointing, we offer, instead, a detailed commitment to the city's renewal, a written guarantee with no fine print," the contract states. "Our goal is to restore accountability to the City Council, to end its cycle of scandal and disgrace, to make us proud of the way our community and their elected officials conduct themselves,"

In addition to the pledge, Roberson asked the council to pass various reforms to rebuild trust in Rocky Mount's leadership, including hiring an outside auditor for more frequent reviews of city spending, televising all council meetings to boost transparency, requiring all council members and city officials to submit statements of economic interest and mandating council members complete an ethics course at the UNC School of Government each year.

"This is only the beginning, but this is how we must start," he said.

Four of the seven council members have decided not to attend the meeting, Roberson said Tuesday, urging residents to call the four – Andre Knight, T.J. Walker, Richard Joyner and Chris Miller – to push them to attend.

On Saturday, May 23, Councilwoman Chris Miller sent out a press release disputing Roberson's account, saying she was present in the city government complex and ready to attend the meeting when Roberson called it off.

State Rep. Shelley Willingham, D-Edgecombe, whose district includes part of Rocky Mount, blasted the audit on Monday, saying it targeted black officials in Rocky Mount.

"There appears to be a pattern of individual assassination of black individuals’ character and a personal attack made on black leadership who were duly elected by the citizens and justifiably appointed by the City Council," Willingham said in a statement. "This audit process and report has been a major distraction from moving our city forward when people are contracting a disease that has killed tens of thousands of people in America and even more across the world. ... [W]e request that the State Auditor's Office bring a speedy end to their interference with Rocky Mount's economic, social and political well-being."

State Auditor Beth Wood said she's disappointed by the accusation, saying race plays no role in any of her investigations.

"My office has conducted similar investigations of Tarboro, Manteo and Belhaven," Wood said in a statement. "The City of Rocky Mount received no better or worse treatment than any other local government investigated by my office."

WRAL Capitol Bureau Chief Laura Leslie contributed to this story.

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