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Residents sound off to council

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Resident Clark Covolo addresses the City Council during its meeting Monday at City Hall.

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BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Staff Writer

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

An independent review of Rocky Mount's top administrator will be conducted while she remains on the job, according to a decision made Monday by the City Council.

The in-depth review of City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney is to include a look at employee morale, relationships with federal funding agencies, hiring practices and more.

Small-Toney is under public scrutiny for allegations of cronyism and financial mismanagement stemming from reports a friend she hired to serve as community and business director for the city still lives in Virginia and other issues.

The City Council made the decision after two hours in closed session.

To begin the meeting, Councilman Reuben Blackwell prayed for wisdom for the council to make good decisions to the benefit of everyone. The packed house included the council chambers and closed circuit viewing areas in the third floor break room and the first floor lobby.

Mayor David Combs told the audience that he was advised by City Attorney Jep Rose not to make a statement at last week's meeting, but he was going to do so at this meeting.

Combs said the mayor can't terminate city employees. He said he's presided over meetings as mayor for 11 years and doesn't remember casting a tie-breaking vote and the council votes unanimously 98 percent of the time.

He said the council has listened to citizen concerns and any decision will not be made due to newspaper reports or social media posts.

Combs said the council sent an investigator to Savannah, Ga., where Small-Toney worked before her resignation in 2012. That investigator concluded her troubles were political in nature.

Combs said Small-Toney was the first city manager in 50 years who didn't come from Rocky Mount. He said most of the matters pointed out in Telegram articles were within the scope of her job, and refurbishing work in the city manager's office suite was justified.

Combs said the council was concerned about the number of employees who have left city employ and he wanted to assure employees the city shouldn't be a place of intimidation.

Combs said 16 days of straight negative news articles in the Telegram weren't helping resolve a personnel issue and everyone should press the pause button.

Mayor Pro Tem Tom Rogers said the council has spent hours listening and reading and has decided to call for an independent in-depth review of the matter to begin immediately. Rogers said the council deeply values the city's employees.

At the end of the meeting, Small-Toney acknowledged the contributions of Jonathan Boone, a longtime employee leaving the city for a position with Nash County.

The council allowed an hour of public comment with everyone who signed up to speak being heard:

■ Susan Perry Cole said the recent articles represent a journalistic lynching of Small-Toney's character.

■ Lige Daughtridge said the audit called for by the council should be made public. He said the Telegram exposed several issues including the dismantling of downtown development and indisputable evidence of cronyism.

■ Nathlyn Ohree, third chair of the local NAACP, said the organization has confidence in the council and manager. She said the Telegram smeared Small-Toney across it's headlines. She labeled the newspaper as disruptive, discriminative, disrespectful, accusatory and hostile.

■ Clark Covolo said he put together a bipartisan group, not a lynch mob.

"My issue is not of race or gender, but a lack of confidence," he said.

In reference to the new parks director, Covolo asked the audience whether they had ever received a $40,000 raise, which drew a laugh from the crowd.

■ Jerome Brown said the situation was a shake up of the status quo. He said a white woman would never receive such scrutiny. He said the Telegram should be ashamed for dragging Small-Toney through the mud with its onslaught of negative articles.

■ Debrah Parker said she was disappointed the issues had been reduced to a matter of gender. She thanked the Telegram for having integrity and nerve.

■ The Rev. Thomas Walker said the original sin of America is racism. He referenced the 1970s sanitation workers strike. He said he'd heard someone wanted to print and wear red hats with the words Make Rocky Mount Great Again.

■ Robert Daughtridge Jr. said he doesn't understand why the council would hire someone with Small-Toney's track record of mismanagement. He said he cancelled a business trip to attend the meeting and that he could live anywhere but chose Rocky Mount.

■ John Jordan recommended term limits for the council. He said he hopes the city can get past the issue.

■ Bronson Williams said silence is betrayal and Americans are innocent until proven guilty. He said the city's internal auditor should report to the council instead of the manager and shouldn't operate under a threat of termination.

■ Robert Davis said a lie is accepted quicker than the truth. He questioned the amount of folks at the meeting.

"If we want to manage something we should go home and manage our home," Davis said.

■ Kelley Kennedy, a reporter with CBS17, said she's requested interviews with City Council members that have been denied. She asked the council whether employee turnover is due to Small-Toney's management style.

■ Jacqueline Barnes said as a city employee, she wanted to speak up for Small-Toney. She said she was inspired by the training other employees had panned. She said she felt like a flame had been lit inside her after the training.

■ Mark Russell said Councilman Reuben Blackwell should have recused himself from votes related to the Event Center and the OIC, the nonprofit that Blackwell runs.

"It appears we have a serious conflict of interest," Russell said.

■ Nehemiah Smith said a conspiracy was afoot among disgruntled elements to sabotage Small-Toney over trivial dalliances and her history elsewhere.

"To hell with Savannah, Georgia, this is Rocky Mount," Smith said.

■ Jean Kitchin said she is friends with all the council members. Sje said she is pleased the council is taking public concerns seriously. She said a group was going to develop an old downtown building, but since no one else is investing, they've changed their minds.

"Make a change, make a change quickly," Kitchin said.

■ Delane Alston said the city needs to make downtown more attractive to developers. She also said weekend Event Center activities were eating up parking for businesses on the Douglas Block.

■ Stacey Graham said she was angry then embarrassed and finally saddened by the media attention and the council’s apparent unresponsiveness. She said Small-Toney promised her she would improve the permit process a year ago, but nothing has been done. She said downtown, moving forward in 2016, is now stagnant.

■ Natarlin Best told the council not to let business repeat itself and rally behind an innovator like Small-Toney. She said it was time for all city residents to unite regardless of race.

■ Kary Kirk said she trusted the council.

"God only knows the rest of the story," she said, calling for Small-Toney and the council who voted for her to resign.

■ Russell Macintyre said the council has a responsibility to end the matter that has been a distraction.

■ Morrie Minges said she doesn't care about color, she wants the best for Rocky Mount.

"Was being a black woman your main qualifiction for the job?" she asked to a uniform moan from the crowd.

■ Tosha Aldridge said she's a downtown business owner and her husband is a city employee. She said she will not stay downtown.

"Downtown's a mess," she said.

■ A.B. Whitley said the council should make a swift decision.

"In life we find we're right where we put ourselves," he said, adding that the council should have prevented its current situation.

At the end of public comment, Combs thanked everyone for being respectful.

After the meeting, Walker was interviewed by Charles Roberson, a real estate investor and independent film producer.

Walker told Roberson that he is sure some of the employees’ concerns are legitimate.

Walker said the entire ordeal is a learning moment for the city.

"Grow through it, don't go through it," Walker said. "No one can ride your back unless it's bent."

Roberson and Walker agreed that scrutiny should make for a better city manager.

In other business, the council awarded a three-year contract for custodial services to Cleen Sweep at a total cost of $872,236.44.

Cleen Sweep was incorrectly correctly spelled in Saturday's edition of the Telegram.

Small-Toney presented an option of splitting the contract with another cleaning service.

Blackwell said he tabled the item two weeks ago due to a citizen question, but he saw no reason to change the contract now since no discrepancies were found.

Cleen Sweep owner Karen Jones told the council she worked hard to create her company and had no relations to anyone on the council.

This report was updated to correct the spelling of two names.

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