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City vows to take action on Suddenlink complaints

The City Council is going to come up with a plan of action in response to complaints about poor local service by the cable and internet giant Suddenlink.

Councilman Andre Knight had the subject of Suddenlink added to Monday evening's council regular meeting agenda.

After the item was brought up near the end of the meeting, Councilman Reuben Blackwell said this has been a persisting issue for him for a number of years.

"And it's getting worse," Blackwell said. "I don't know what's up with the current Suddenlink management, but their team seems to not be responsive at all to customer concerns.

"People are having to wait for weeks for service."

Blackwell is the president and CEO of the Opportunities Industrialization Center, which seeks to help provide residents with employment training and health care.

"We've had several issues at OIC with people being inconsistent at Suddenlink about coming out and servicing, not taking responsibility for things that they did, having service interrupted and dropped, according to whoever is around using devices," he said.

Blackwell said he has received a number of calls and complaints about Suddenlink, but he also made clear he would like to hear other stories to get a complete picture of what is wrong.

Blackwell said clearly his point is people are paying a lot of money for service and, with humor, he said a monthly cable bill from Suddenlink resembles a monthly property rental bill.

"But I think we deserve better service than this — and I think the General Assembly needs to do something," Blackwell said. "They've protected their interests. Who's protecting our interests?"

"Amen," Mayor Sandy Roberson said.

Politically conservative-dominated General Assemblies in North Carolina in more recent years have been supportive of major communications companies.

Moments earlier in the discussion, Knight told his fellow council members a problem is many people who work in their homes for safety reasons due to the coronavirus pandemic are experiencing instances of internet service going down.

Knight said some employees' supervisors are telling their employees if they cannot work in their homes due to a lack of access to the internet, then they are going to have to resume doing their jobs at those companies' offices or work sites.

And Knight cited what he called "exorbitant rates and fees" and long wait times after customers ask Suddenlink to provide technical support.

Knight also said some areas still do not have access to the internet.

Roberson said he, too, has heard a number of complaints about Suddenlink.

Roberson also said he has been asked by a number of mayors in municipalities close to Rocky Mount having similar issues to join them in petitioning state officials in Raleigh about the matter.

Roberson asked City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney whether she has any kind of informal information about challenges she has logged as complaints with the municipality about Suddenlink.

"Oh yes, we receive complaints quite a bit," Small-Toney said.

Small-Toney said she could not remember the name of the office in Raleigh where such complaints are referred, but she said a local government in North Carolina "no longer has the opportunity to be as active as you have in the past."

Small-Toney told Roberson and the council, "I guess the lobbying efforts of the cable franchises cut you out of that process — and, unfortunately, at the local level there isn't much more you can do, other than just refer the complaint to Raleigh."

Small-Toney said she believes what probably would be a good idea or suggestion is to have a conversation with the state legislative delegation from the Rocky Mount area to see exactly what can be done.

Roberson said he wanted to explore signing a petition, but he said he believes such action would be strengthened by a resolution by the council.

"Yes," Blackwell said.

Councilman Lige Daughtridge, who is a businessman, also said in economic development, there are many opportunities, but he made clear one of the things that could hinder Rocky Mount in the future is not having adequate service.

Daughtridge said his company, although small, had to spend money on a setup ensuring rapid internet service and noted this was a huge investment.

Daughtridge said he is certain others had to do the same because of the need to survive in today's environment.

"And that's what we had to do — and I'm sure other companies and, unfortunately, the residents don't have that same opportunity," Daughtridge said.

Daughtridge said he would not only welcome a resolution, but also a delegation going to Raleigh and whatever else the city can do in the form of action.

And Daughtridge said of what the city can do, "You don't know until you try."

Knight told of customers having to pay bills of anywhere from $230 to $300 just to be able to watch television and have access to the internet.

Knight also asked Small-Toney about getting a contact phone number from someone in Raleigh that the city can directly communicate complaints to in the meantime.

The Telegram on Tuesday sought comment via email from Ashwin Bhandari, who is communications manager of Suddenlink's parent company, Altice USA.

Bhandari issued a statement saying, "Suddenlink has a longstanding relationship with Rocky Mount and we remain committed to delivering the best service and support to local residents and businesses.

"We will be in touch with the City Council to address any concerns as we continue to deliver high-quality service and support to the area," the statement said.

The Telegram reported on Jan. 1 that Tarboro town officials, via a letter by Mayor Joe Pitt, asked state Attorney General Josh Stein to investigate the business practices of Suddenlink and Altice USA.

Pitt said in the letter that while service issue complaints have been ongoing for years in Tarboro, COVID-19 has exposed the scope of problems of both the infrastructure and service delivery of Suddenlink.

Council OKs transfer of Confederate monument

The City Council on Monday evening quickly approved transferring possession of the since-taken-down Confederate monument to the local Sons of Confederate Veterans and the local United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Councilman Andre Knight said “so moved” in making a motion just before Mayor Sandy Roberson completed reading aloud the action recommended by City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney.

Councilman Richard Joyner seconded Knight’s motion and the vote was unanimous.

A memorandum from Small-Toney to Roberson and the council said the Robert Henry Ricks Camp 75 of the state Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Bethel Heroes 636 state division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy asked the city to release the monument to their care and custody so they may preserve the monument at a location in Nash County.

The memorandum said the agreement with the city would call for transferring all rights and the title and interest to the SCV Camp 75 and the UDC Bethel Heroes on the condition they transport the monument to and re-erect the monument at the new site.

The memorandum also said the SCV Camp 75 and the UDC Bethel Heroes subsequently would maintain, preserve and protect the monument at their own cost.

Small-Toney in the memorandum recommended the council vote for the terms.

The agenda includes a five-page document outlining those terms in more detail.

The document makes clear no monetary or other consideration is changing hands between the city and the SCV Camp 75 and UDC Bethel Heroes.

The document said both the SCV Camp 75 and the UDC Bethel Heroes may preserve and protect the monument at a location in the county at least 15 miles from the Rocky Mount city limits.

The document also makes clear the stored parts of the monument must be removed from city property and delivered to the new site within 120 days of the effective date of the agreement or else the agreement will be voided.

The SCV is based in Columbia, Tenn., and is the oldest hereditary organization for male descendants of Confederate soldiers.

The UDC is based in Richmond, Va., and is a hereditary heritage group of Southern women.

The monument in Rocky Mount was on the south side of the U.S. 64 interchange with Benvenue Road. It was installed in 1917 by Confederate veteran Robert Henry Ricks of Nash County in memory of his comrades on land owned by the then-Rocky Mount Mills.

Ricks also was an agribusinessman, banker, hotelier, Nash County commissioner, state House member, state senator and a state Board of Education member. He died in 1920 at age 81.

The Confederate monument came with an inscription saying the monument was committed to the care of the UDC Bethel Heroes.

In 1976, the monument site was annexed by the city. T.E. Ricks, representing the Robert Henry Ricks estate, asked the city to take over the maintenance of the area around the monument.

The then-council in 1976 agreed to maintain the monument site, which meant the city would mow the surrounding grass and keep the surrounding area clean, subject to the monument site being given to the city. This was with the understanding the city would not be responsible for any damage to the monument.

The monument became a focus of attention in the aftermath of the May 25 death of African-American George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death prompted riots in cities nationwide and the removal of Confederate monuments in the South by either government officials or protesters.

On May 31, the monument in Rocky Mount was the scene of a peaceful protest to call attention to Floyd’s death.

The council voted 6-1 during a council budget work session on June 2 to move the monument and formalized the action of that vote with a 6-1 vote at the June 8 council meeting.

Councilman W.B. Bullock cast the lone dissenting votes.

The text supporting the June 8 vote called for putting the monument in a safe place, pending further action by the council.

The council without dissent approved a resolution against racial injustice and declaring Black lives matter. However, there were complaints locally via social media after a news release from a city spokesman on June 25 saying the cost to take the monument down would exceed $281,000.

Documents as part of Monday’s council agenda said the monument had been a target of vandalism in the past. That included the monument’s two rear statues having been pulled from their pedestals and found in pieces on the ground, as well as damage to the head of the front left statue, which had been removed from the monument and never was located.

The documents as part of Monday’s council agenda referred to a downtown business having been vandalized and a bomb threat having been made to the state Department of Revenue service center along Country Club Road in the northwestern part of the city.

The documents did not name the business, but the Telegram has quoted police as saying Wholesale Paint Center along North Church Street on June 1 reported having sustained damage to its windows.

The bomb threat to the state service center occurred on June 2.

The documents also noted that unnamed members of the council became aware of credible threats to destroy the monument as a response to acts of racial injustice.

Tarboro monument given to Fort Branch

Tarboro’s Confederate monument has a new home.

The Tarboro Town Council voted unanimously Monday to place ownership of the monument, dedicated on the Town Common on Oct. 29, 1904, and removed on Sept. 5 amid nationwide civil unrest, in the hands of the Fort Branch Historical Society.

Fort Branch was one of three proposals submitted to the council but the only one considered as Mayor Pro Tem Othar Woodard, attending the meeting via telephone, quickly made the motion to award possession of the monument to the 501(c)3 organization, which supports the Fort Branch Confederate Earthen Fort Civil War Site.

It was Woodard who made the motion to remove the monument from the Town Common.

Fort Branch overlooks the Roanoke River and is located two miles below Hamilton and 60 miles upriver from Plymouth. It is about a 35-minute drive east of Tarboro.

In his written proposal to the council, Fort Branch Historical Society President Jimmy Braswell, who lives in Tarboro, wrote that his organization is focused on historical and archaeological preservation of Fort Branch.

“This organization has been focused on preserving the site for over 40 years,” Braswell wrote. “It has been entrusted with major artifacts from the time by the State of North Carolina to include seven cannons that were recovered from the Roanoke River during 1972 and 1977. We are charged with care and maintenance and public display of the artifacts from the two recovery operations. The seven cannons at Fort Branch account for 70 percent of the cannons at Fort Branch.”

He described Fort Branch as “unique among all Civil War sites. No other site comes even close to being able to display such a high percentage of original guns that are directly connected to the specific site.”

In pointing out why Fort Branch would be a good location for the re-erection of the monument, he pointed out that Gov. Roy Cooper “stated that such monuments should be at sites that correlate in historical context. Following that mindset, monuments have been successfully re-erected at the Kinston and Bentonville battlefields. Fort Branch is a Confederate earthen fort, which was the closest military installation to Tarboro/Edgecombe County.”

He also provided a list of some 35 Tarboro and Edgecombe County men and boys, aged 15-17, who served at Fort Branch and returned to defend their homes and save the bridge when Union troops attempted to burn it to cover their retreat toward New Bern and the coast.

Braswell said his organization would remove the components of the monument from storage within 120 days and wrote, “In conclusion, there is and never has been a more appropriate site for the relocation of the Edgecombe County Confederate Soldier’s monument than Fort Branch. If granted the monument, the Fort Branch Historical Society fully intends to re-erect it at Fort Branch to honor all soldiers that fought in the conflict. We would make plans to remove the components of the monument from town storage within 120 days and do everything in our power to re-erect this monument to honor these veterans and keep it available to the public.”

Other proposals were received from McCutchan Jones at Coolmore Plantation and Tarboro Revitalization Inc.

Jones’ plan was to re-erect the monument in a rose garden, where it could be viewed by appointment and during occasional open houses. Tarboro Revitalization’s plan was to re-erect the monument at an unidentified location on private land.

Deputies probe shooting that killed man, wounded woman

A Rocky Mount man with a history with law enforcement was shot and killed Monday night and the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office is investigating.

Stoshua Eugene Lynch, 21, was found dead inside his vehicle when deputies arrived at the scene late Monday night near the intersection of Cokey Road and Fairview Avenue. A woman in Lynch’s vehicle received non-life-threatening gunshot wounds.

The call came in to Rocky Mount police about 10:08 p.m. and was transferred to the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office as the location was in Edgecombe County.

Cpl. J.T. Jones of the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office was in the area at the time of the shooting and stopped a vehicle occupied by two people of interest who were detained but later released.

Detectives are continuing to interview witnesses and collect surveillance video in an effort to develop a suspect or suspects.

Anyone who may have been in this area about 10 p.m. on Monday and seen anything is encouraged to call the sheriff’s office at 252-641-7911.

Lynch was arrested by Rocky Mount police on Dec. 26, 2019, when he confronted a man he had been charged with robbing the day before.

The man told police that Lynch, who was known to him, had pulled a gun on him and fled when he called police. The incident stemmed from a robbery that took place the previous night, the man told police.

Lynch confessed to the robbery, according to Rocky Mount police, and was charged with robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault by pointing a gun, carrying and concealing a gun and resisting a police officer.

He was jailed under a $45,000 secured bond in the Nash County Detention Center.

Edgecombe school board settles lawsuit for $190K

A long-standing lawsuit against the Edgecombe County Board of Education and several other parties connected to the school district has been settled for $190,000, Edgecombe County school board attorney Deborah Stagner announced at Monday’s meeting of the school board.

The settlement came about in response to the lawsuit “L.B. v. Edgecombe County Bd. of Educ. et al,” which was filed in November 2016.

A May 2016 field trip incident allegedly involving sex, drugs and alcohol led to the filing of the federal lawsuit against the school board and nine school district employees.

The original 37-page lawsuit alleged 12 causes of action arising out of disciplinary actions taken against a female student for alleged sexual harassment by two male students during a field trip to Washington, D.C., on May 12, 2016.

The lawsuit further alleged that the school district violated Title IX regulations, the N.C. Whistleblower Act and other constitutional rights. It also accused the school district and some of its employees of negligence, infliction of emotional distress, defamation and libel related to the field trip incident and cited the disciplinary decisions of the school district and perceived intimidation of the plaintiffs for filing appeals.

The plaintiff was a former student at SouthWest Edgecombe High School, who was only identified by the initials L.B. Her mother, identified in court documents as Kimberly Biggs, also was part of the suit filed after the alleged chain of incidents occurred.

Biggs was employed as an elementary school teacher by the school district at the time the lawsuit was filed.

Biggs and her daughter filed the suit seeking at least $120,000 in redress from the school board, former superintendent John Farrelly, four teachers who were acting as chaperones on the field trip to Washington, D.C., and four other staff members of the school district.

The lawsuit stated that the incident occurred during a school-sponsored, four-day field trip to the nation’s capital. The trip reportedly involved 36 members of the SouthWest Edgecombe High School History Club.

The suit alleged that the female student was sexually assaulted in a hotel room by three male students who reportedly had been drinking and smoking marijuana. Two of the boys allegedly assaulted her while another reportedly recorded the incident and shared it on Snapchat.

The lawsuit also alleged that school officials accused her of sexual harassment and suspended her for 10 days. According to the plaintiff, the school also took away several honors, including the opportunity to attend the governor’s school, to serve as a junior marshal and to participate in several elite clubs at the school.

The young men involved in the incident were never disciplined for their actions, the suit alleged.

The school district never commented publicly on the disciplinary actions taken, citing federal and state privacy laws.

Stagner said in a statement issued Tuesday that by settling the lawsuit, the Edgecombe County Board of Education does not admit to any wrongdoing.

“The lawsuit captioned L.B. v. Edgecombe County Bd. of Educ. et al., Case #4:16-cv-00271-D (E.D.N.C.), has been settled by the parties for a total of $190,000 paid by or on behalf of all defendants in exchange for a full dismissal of the lawsuit,” Stagner said. “The Board of Education does not admit the plaintiff’s allegations in the lawsuit or any wrongdoing and has settled this matter to avoid the time, expense and uncertainty of further litigation.”

A copy of the settlement agreement will be maintained in the school board’s records, Stagner said.