By Curmilus Dancy II
Note: I have withheld posting this since May 26, 2020.
State Auditor Beth Wood, in justifying why she launched her expensive, anticlimactic investigation into the goings on in Rocky Mount, said she was prompted to do so after being bombarded by citizen complaints about alleged improprieties. But I, along with a growing number of citizens across the region, are questioning Ms. Wood’s judgment and her motives.
No matter where you stand on the politics, citizen should be yelling at the top of their lungs demanding to know why there was such an egregious waste of taxpayers’ money and resources. To be clear, Ms. Wood authorized spending nearly a half-million dollars ($421,282.00) and a year’s worth of manpower hours (4,058 hours) to come to her most dramatic findings, that: 1.) A city councilman was able to evade $47,000 in utility bills; and 2.) City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney overspent her expense account to the tune of $500 a year for three years. Let that sink in, and forget for a moment that Ms. Wood’s alleged objective is to ensure governmental fiscal accountability.
Now, I ask every thoughtful, honest person to take a closer look at these charges. In the case of the councilman, whom Ms. Wood later identified as Andre Knight, there are several things that are quite troubling. Firstly, the North Carolina Utilities Commission as well as federal data privacy laws prohibit the release of personal information about utility account holders. Ms. Wood certainly knew that, because her audit never identified Mr. Knight by name. Yet, when she was interviewed by television and print reporters, she quickly threw the councilman’s name to the wind.
Since Mr. Knight has denied the charges, the public has a right to know what proof she has to the contrary and why she was not obliged to follow the law. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that reporters had gathered all of Rocky Mount’s utility bills and matched them to certain properties belonging to Mr. Knight. Those reporters would still have to determine whether all of the utility bills were his responsibility – and not that of a tenant or sub-tenant – during, in this particular case, the entire twenty (20)-year period. That’s right, the period in question traverses two decades!
Responding to the auditor, the city wrote, “The write-off amount the City reported … did not have supporting documentation in the form of printable billings that verified the total amount. A true or even proximate value could never be reconciled to the amount that was reported to the [auditor]. A total of $47,000 has never been substantiated by the City Staff or the [auditor] but was gleaned from a data dump performed by the City’s Finance Department. …In addition, many of the balances referenced by the [auditor] dating back to 1999 were much higher than normal residential accounts and defied logic as to how the calculations of those were made, much less confirmed. It is not clear whether the [auditor] investigated, when informed, that the account in question was subject to possible manipulation by unauthorized City staff for a good portion of the time that the write-offs covered.”
What’s even more disturbing is the auditor’s comment that, “Other City residents had to pay their bills timely to continue to receive services.” Thus, even if Mr. Knight’s bills had been written off, as she claims, her statement clearly suggests that Mr. Knight is the only person during this 20-year period who was given such a benefit. Is there anyone who believes this? Of course not. In fact, there were about $20 million in utility bills that were written off by the city during this same period. Why aren’t those names bantered about in public discourse?
Now, let’s delve into Ms. Wood’s other major finding, that Ms. Small-Toney lavished herself with lobster and shrimp dinners at the public’s expense. I have been outspoken about my belief that this audit –like the previous one that fizzled in a pool of racial animus – is an outright assault on the city’s Black leadership. First of all, it is absolutely outrageous to suggest that this city’s chief executive should’ve stuck to the cheap side of the menu. Who believes for a moment that the public outrage would be just as intense if it had gotten out that Mayor Sandy Roberson’s or a white city manager had chosen seafood over chicken or spaghetti? It harkens to the old racist trope of the “welfare queen” spending her food stamps on luxury dinners, instead of more modest fare.
Ms. Small-Toney provided receipts for a full $1,416.12 of the $1,575 in question, and she noted that the expenditures were for city staff dinners at conferences for the National League of Cities in Charlotte in 2017 ($858.62) and the ElectriCities in Ashville in 2018 ($557.50). A balance of $158 was unaccounted for. Sorry Ms. Woods, but this is hardly a finding that can be justified by such an expensive, yearlong investigation.
But Ms. Woods is not the only public figure whose motivation must be questioned. The mayor – yes, the same one who campaigned on his ability and desire to bring this racially fractured city together – has accelerated the longstanding attacks on the duly elected council majority and city manager, both of whom happen to be African American. He really revealed himself when he stepped up his political gamesmanship and asked Mr. Knight to resign. He knew that was throwing raw meat to an angry white contingency in this city who contend that Mr. Knight’s position on the City Council is in direct conflict with his role as the leader of the local chapter of the NAACP. (That white rage is clear to anyone paying attention to several local social media pages.) This is a telling indication of this city’s racial climate. The NAACP’s mission is to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, has an equal opportunity to succeed in society. And the truth is, that mission should be in perfect harmony with anyone seeking to hold a council seat or sit in the mayor’s seat. Many African Americans worked for Mr. Roberson’s campaign, sincerely believing he would live up to his promise.
I’m in agreement with State Rep. Shelly Willingham (D-Edgecombe), who in recent days is asking from accountability from the state auditor and the mayor. Like many residents, he is asking why such a minute sliver of the city’s population (less than 4 tenths of one percent) was able to trigger such an expensive, protracted investigation. We want to know:
· Who were the complainants?
· What is her proof against Councilman Knight, and how, with protections afforded by law, was the auditor able to publicize his name as the utility account holder?
· Was Knight the only account holder who received write-offs during that 20-year period, as she intimated in the audit?
· If not, why was that information on other account holders withheld?
· How many others received write-offs; what are their names; and for how much were the entitlements?
· Why did Ms. Small-Toney receive such notable mention in the audit report when she was not employed until 2017 and many of the allegations date back to 1999?
It’s no secret that the audit was triggered by the usual crowd of disgruntled citizens who can find no comfort in the progressive agenda for downtown Rocky Mount developed and supported by the current city administration and City Council.
To those detractors, I say stop attempting to do an end-around a local government that was elected by the residents of this city, and allow the will of the majority to move forward.
Ms. Woods, stop allowing yourself to be a puppet of the recalcitrant obstructionists in our city and work to regain your reputation as an impartial state auditor. And, Mr. Roberson, be a change-maker – that person you promised during your campaign – not the one plotting against those making our city better for everyone.