Public votes not taken on city hires


Staff Writer

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Rocky Mount City Council may have violated open meetings laws recently when hiring an interim manager, a consultant for the Downtown Event Center and a new city manager, according to a public records law professor.

“If the council didn’t vote in open session, then there was a clear violation,” said Frayda Bluestein, a teaching dean for the School of Government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Interim City Manager Steve Raper and incoming City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney were recently appointed without a public vote. Long-time City Manager Charles Penny was hired as a consultant after discussion in closed session. All three moves appear to be violations of state law, according to Bluestein, who was contacted by the Telegram on the matter.

Mayor David Combs said the council didn’t intentionally violate any laws. Combs said he thought the council voted to approve the appointments in open session following the closed sessions.

“Whatever we've done or not done certainly wasn't intentional,” Combs said. “We want to be as transparent as possible.”

Combs referred other questions about the appointments to Councilman Lamont Wiggins, who is a lawyer.

Wiggins said the council takes every effort to be transparent and made announcements about the hiring decisions in each situation.

“There's not an effort to withhold anything,” Wiggins said. “As far as those minutes and those matters, we want our counsel to review before we make specific comment.”

City Attorney Jep Rose is out of the country, can't be reached by telephone and won't return to his office until June 12.

Penny announced his plans to retire earlier this year. Before he left his position March 31, a temporary replacement had been picked by the council. On March 22, the council announced it had selected Raper, a former city manager, to be the interim manager. The decision was made during closed session March 13. No public action was taken after the closed session, according to meeting minutes.

Raper was sworn in as interim manager April 3. His salary is $15,000 a month.

“Final action making an appointment or discharge or removal by a public body having final authority for the appointment or discharge or removal shall be taken in an open meeting,” N.C. General Statute 143 states.

On May 8, Penny was hired by the council as a consultant related to the controversial Event Center. The decision came after closed session in which his contract was discussed by the council. No public action is recorded at the end of that session, according to meeting minutes.

Bluestein said discussing a consultant contract in closed session was a clear violation of open meetings laws as closed session for personnel matters is for employees and doesn’t cover contracted consultants.

Penny’s pay rate was set at $125 an hour for no more than 40 hours a month totaling $4,800.

The search for Penny’s full-time replacement continued with a handful of closed sessions in May, ending May 19 when the council chose Small-Toney as the new city manager. No public action was taken at the end of that session, according to meeting minutes.

Minutes should be reflective of what happened at each meeting, City Clerk Pam Casey said Friday. Had any votes been taken in public after any of the closed sessions, it should be recorded in the minutes. However, Casey said she isn't always present when the council comes out of closed session.

Closed session minutes can take up to a year to be made public and some information regarding personnel matters may never be released, Casey said.

The public meeting minutes for all the dates included in this report have been unanimously approved by the council in subsequent meetings.

Bluestein said it is permissible for the council to form a consensus for its top pick for the manager's job during closed session and to quietly offer the position to that candidate. But the council still needed to make a final vote in an open meeting once the candidate accepted the job.

The city issued a press statement May 25 announcing Small-Toney’s appointment. There is no record of a public vote.

Small-Toney is set to begin July 2 wih an annual salary of $175,000.