Emails show intent about parking lots


Reuben Blackwell


Staff Writer

Friday, April 19, 2019

Despite public denials, Rocky Mount Councilman Reuben Blackwell was aware of plans to break an agreement with Edgecombe Community College on downtown parking in favor of a housing project, according to emails obtained by the Telegram.

In answer to reader interest, the Telegram is posting 100 pages of emails and attachments with the online version of this report. The emails are part of a public request for the past six months worth of emails to, from or copied to City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney.

ECC agreed to buy property on Tarboro Street next to city property because the city said the site would remain parking, Gloria Wiggins-Hicks, a member of the ECC Board of Trustees, said at a recent workshop on the planned Tarboro Street housing project.

At a City Council meeting earlier this month, local business owner Lige Daughtridge, candidate for the Ward 5 seat on the City Council, asked why the council was moving forward with housing when city staff had created a draft agreement with ECC for parking there.

Blackwell said the council never voted to approve such an agreement.

While Blackwell was speaking, Daughtridge held up a copy of the draft agreement.

Blackwell said housing was always the goal for Tarboro Street, he wasn't aware of what staff was planning and that several possibilities were considered for the Tarboro Street property — anything that would improve downtown.

Blackwell's statement can be viewed beginning at the 35:27 minute mark of a YouTube video recorded and posted online by local political blogger Curmilus Dancy.

“First of all, there was never a written agreement with Edgecombe Community College that this council voted on,” Blackwell said during the meeting. “I don't remember one. I don't remember voting on one. There might have been conversations with members of staff and with community college leaders but there was no agreement that everybody voted on. It was never discussed openly. So for some of us sitting on the council I'm just saying, we never had conversations. I never heard that conversation."

However, according to an Oct. 4 email, when Blackwell received the agenda for the October council meeting he asked a question and received a detailed answer from Small-Toney about the plan to transition from parking to housing when the funding was available.

Blackwell's question: “The document that defines our parking relationship with ECC says that we are using both parcels for event parking and that we are paying all costs for all lot improvements. Are we now saying that we are not choosing to use our parcels for housing on Atlantic and Tarboro or are their other parcels not defined or included in this agreement?”

Small-Toney's answer in part: “No, we will continue to look to use the site for housing and terminate the agreement at the appropriate time. Parking is during the interim until we know for certain that the state has appropriated the funds for the project.”

Blackwell's response: “EXCELLENT!”

This email chain is the first emails included in the online PDF.

Blackwell didn't return an email with detailed questions about the matter.

As far as why the council didn't vote on the agreement, Small-Toney tabled the item because the agreement didn't include a way for the city to back out when the time was right.

“I tabled the agreement because it was not sufficient enough in accomplishing what was needed to insure that the agreement could be terminated by either party with sufficient notification,” Small-Toney told City Engineer Brad Kerr in an October email conversation about how the improvements to the college's parking lot were made without an agreement in place.

Small-Toney's questions and Kerr's response is the second email chain in the online PDF.

A deeper dive on city manager emails reveal a sink hole at a city park, mold at a community center, lavish Miami Beach meals paid with a city credit card, no utility meter for OIC at the Event Center and more.

Titled "City Emails Release," the PDF includes emails relative to last Sunday's article about secret money and relief that auditors didn't look in certain files. Other emails include:

■ City Accounting Manager Nicki Gurganus, who previously questioned an extended Miami hotel stay for Small-Toney and Landis Faulcon, the city's community and business development director, points out that Faulcon was in line to receive reimbursements for meals paid for with the city credit card.

"The meal charges are included in the amount that we paid on the City's credit card. The per diems for those meals are included in the reimbursement for Landis. Without adjustment, we would have paid for the same meals twice," Gurganus said in a Sept. 20 email.

Meals included $194.24 for dinner at PrimeFish Miami and $99 for dinner at Joe's Stone Crab.

■ Former City Manager Charles Penny, a $125-an-hour consultant at the time, sent a Sept. 5 memo to Richard Worsinger, the city's utilities director, telling him not to install a gas and electric meter for the OIC at the Event Center. Penny said the meters could be installed in 2023 when the financing structure is dissolved. In the meanwhile, software is separating the OIC's bills from the Event Center's bills.

■ In a mid-July email, a disgruntled trucker threatens to urinate in Mayor David Combs' food because of the city's new truck parking law.

"Screw you for banning truck parking," the trucker states. "How about we take a pee on the food we deliver to you. Good luck with that new law. We do pee on food when people treat us wrong."

The email has explicit language.

■ Assistant City Manager Natasha Hampton-Clayton sent emails to Small-Toney in August and September about a buried steel tank causing a sink hole at Martin Luther King Jr. Park and thick white mold covering the floor joists of the Battleboro Community Center.

Elton Daniels, the city's director of parks and recreation, provided an update on the two situations Thursday.

"The sink hole addressed in the e-mail was fixed by a private contractor," Daniels said. "Since that time, staff discovered a much smaller sink hole that will be repaired next week by Engineering and the Parks and Recreation staff. The sink holes were the result of a tank that was crushed and buried in the early 80s after the decommission of the former Wastewater Treatment Plant located at the site."

The Battleboro Community Center had mold, Daniels said.

"Last summer, the building was tested for mold and the results were positive," Daniels said. "The building was shut down and remains closed. Staff is currently assessing costs for mold remediation, as well as future use of the facility."

Hundreds of emails covering July, August, September and October have been received by the Telegram over the past few weeks.

The large majority of the emails are about routine city governance. In the interest of full disclosure, anyone who wants the complete email files can email lkay@rmtelegram.com with "city emails" in the subject line and the Telegram will reply with the zip files attached.

City Attorney Jep Rose reviewed the emails, removing any email that contained personnel or personal information.

City Hall is in the midst of two investigations. A law firm is conducting an independent review into alleged malfeasance at City Hall. At the same time, the Office of the State Auditor is subpoenaing and interviewing past and present city employees concerning the same issues.