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City audits prove ineffective

Bronson Williams

Bronson Williams

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BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Staff Writer

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Greater accountability and transparency should steer the City Council clear of controversy like the current conflagration over claims of financial mismanagement, according to a candidate for mayor in October's election.

Bronson Williams, an ECU communications graduate, said a change is needed in the reporting structure of Rocky Mount's internal auditor. The way it's configured right now, the auditor reports directly to the city manager.

The internal auditor provides an independent assessment function within City Hall by conducting financial, performance and compliance investigations in order to provide accountability to the public and promote the efficient and effective use of city resources and operations, according to information from the city.

Williams said he'd like to see the auditor report to a six-person panel made up of three council members and three citizens appointed by the council.

Auditors should investigate a claim, determine whether the claim is valid and submit dual reports to the city manager and the panel for both legitimate and invalid complaints, Williams said, adding that the auditor needs to be completely independent.

Right now in Rocky Mount, the auditor directly works for and reports to the city manager. The council can only hire the manager, its clerk and attorney.

The council should also implement a tip line, similar to Durham, to allow anonymous complaints for the auditor to verify, Williams said.

"Every allegation should be investigated," Williams said. "Nothing should go unchecked."

There are differences to be noted in Rocky Mount, a city of 55,000 people, and Durham, a city of 267,000. Rocky Mount employs on internal auditor. Durham employs a five-person auditing team.

The city's former internal auditor, Darlana Moore, left the city in October 2017. She's now the director of internal audit for Durham County.

Rocky Mount's current internal auditor, Lori Cairo, began in November 2018.

Williams said Rocky Mount should follow Durham's example and make it so the manager can't terminate the auditor without council approval.

Durham's auditor reviews external entities to determine whether grant or pass-through funds have been appropriately utilized. Such reviews are necessary to prevent activities like the laundering of city funds through a church or charitable organization.

The city gives Opportunities Industrialization Center money directly through an annual budget expenditure, Ken Hunter, the city's budget manager, told the Telegram last year.

“There is $31,000 budgeted in Business Development for the Construction-Carpentry Trade Class program,” Hunter said.

Councilman Reuben Blackwell is the president of OIC and Councilman Andre Knight is the chairman of the nonprofit's board. Both councilmen vote every year to approve the program's appropriation in the city's budget.

A recent OIC press release invites participants to sign up for a carpentry course and receive stipends.

Local contractor Johnny Cunningham, executive director of ReGroup, told the Telegram the OIC paid him $2,000 to teach a construction course. He said he stopped when he realized the course was little more than a tool safety class.

"The course uses the same tools every time and the materials are all donated," Cunningham said. "OIC shouldn't need all that money from the city for the course."

Knight and Blackwell didn't return detailed messages seeking comment for this story by presstime Saturday.

The City Council received information in April from the League of Municipalities on different reporting structures for the auditor, which included language related to external reviews. The topic hasn't been discussed by the council since then.

Williams said such measures should be enacted.

"The council has become more transparent, but it's not where it needs to be," Williams said.

To truly be transparent, the council needs to video tape its meetings and show the recorded sessions on its television and YouTube channels, said Williams, who has experience running two local television stations.

Williams said Greenville goes as far as broadcasting its council meetings live, something that Rocky Mount could do with a small investment in equipment.

"It would cut down on confusion," Williams said.

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