Mayor David Combs statement from Jan. 28 Rocky Mount City Council meeting:
Thank you all for being here this afternoon. At our called meeting last week, I know some of you were disappointed that I did not comment. Since the council and I were dealing with a personnel issue and no action was taken, I was advised by the city attorney not to make any comments. However, as your mayor, I feel a need to make some comments today before we move to our next agenda item.
I have gotten numerous calls from people that feel like as mayor I can just make the decision to hire or fire the city manager, so I want to take a moment to explain how the city operates.
First, everyone needs to understand that the City Council does not run the city on a day-to-day basis. The City Council sets policy and approves the annual budget. In addition, the City Council may approve or disapprove of agenda items that come before them at a City Council meeting. When it comes to personnel, the City Council is involved only in the hiring or firing of the city manager, the city clerk and the city attorney. The final action with respect to other hiring and firing decisions rests with the city manager. As mayor and council, we explicitly are not allowed to be involved in Human Resource decisions. We operate this way as part of our city policy and city charter.
As mayor, most of you know that I preside at City Council meetings, but I do not have the right to vote unless required to break a tie. In my 11 years as your mayor, I cannot recall voting on a single matter. It is also true that any motion made by a councilmember requires a second and needs at least four votes to pass. However, I will tell you that probably 98 percent of the items that have been brought before this council for approval in my 11 years have been approved by a unanimous vote. We are a diverse city, and our councilmembers represent this diversity. While councilmembers represent the wards that elected them, they also make decisions that are in the best interest of the entire city.
I know that all the city councilmembers, as well as myself, have been listening to citizens’ concerns over the last two weeks. Citizen input is extremely important to all of us.
Please be aware that any decision made in regard to the city manager will not be made because of newspaper articles or social media posts but will be based on facts.
Our city manager, Rochelle Small-Toney, was the former city manager of Savannah. Some have questioned issues surrounding her former employment. The council was aware of these issues. Before hiring Mrs. Small-Toney, an investigation of these issues occurred. The council sent a retired police chief to Savannah to conduct an in-depth investigation. His finding indicated that any accusations were not substantiated. His investigation concluded that the issues were political in nature and not due to any real wrong doings.
When Mrs. Small-Toney was hired, she was the first city manager in at least 50 years who was not hired from within the city. At the time the manager’s position was posted, we did not have any internal candidates. Her selection by the council was based on many factors, including her 35 years of local government experience with hopes that she could bring new ideas and proven management practices to our city.
As far as some of the issues that the newspaper has highlighted, most of them are well within the scope of her job, such as:
1) The Police Chief Search -we have used the same method in the past. The final decision has always been made by the city manager. The process does not call for the assessment team to make recommendations. Team members score each candidate on different exercises that the candidate must complete. At the end of this process, each candidate has a final score. At no time in the process is there a final recommendation given by the assessment team.
2) The next one … Hiring City Employees -While everyone might not agree with some of the city manager’s decisions on the people she has hired for her team, these decisions are well within the scope of her role as city manager. When former city managers Steve Raper and Charles Penny were here, they both made hiring decisions about assistant city managers and department heads without consulting the city council.
3) The supposed Discrimination Law Suit- There was never a lawsuit as the newspaper’s headline alleged – the city did work out a settlement agreement with an employee, John Jesso, but there was not a lawsuit.
4) The Renovations – The council approved a budget this year that included some renovations to city hall. There has been a lot of deferred maintenance on city hall over the past years, especially during the recession, and there were repairs that needed to be done. Some of those repairs were needed in the city manager’s office and assistant manager’s offices. However, again the council does not make those decisions but would have approved overall renovations to City Hall in their 2019 Budget.
With all that said as your mayor, I have two major concerns.
1) City Employees and Moral- First, I want to assure our city employees that we expect our manager to create an employment atmosphere of collaboration and not intimidation. Each and every employee needs an opportunity for professional growth and a pathway to promotion. I am concerned that we have lost a number of employees with years of experience over the last year.
2) Has too much damage been done? I am not sure any city manager could be effective after this relentless media pressure. I believe that having the public’s trust is critical in managing the operations of the city, and when that trust is lost by employees and the public, it would be almost impossible to recover.
My last remark has to do with all of the positive things that are happening in our community. The city, along with other economic partners, have worked hard to bring new economic development and businesses to our area. Over the last year, I have gotten many unsolicited comments from people about how positive they feel about Rocky Mount and its future – better than they have felt in many years.
Unfortunately,16 straight days of negative press and an untold number of negative social media posts cannot be good for our city. Please, for the sake of our collective growth and prosperity …. press the pause button. Take a deep breath before you speak or write. Posting negative comments about your city is NOT going to help resolve this personnel issue. But, I can predict what it WILL DO. It will make it more difficult to retain and to recruit business and families to our community.
I know these are real concerns. I am not discounting any of them or your valuable input. Know this. I am equally concerned. But going forward as your mayor and council, we have to be careful that any decisions we now make or any actions we take in regard to this matter WILL NOT put our city, your city at risk.
I thank you for your continued support, your active interest in this current process, and I hope that everyone will be patient and allow us to work through this difficult issue.