The year 2020 arguably will not go down as one for the City of Rocky Mount to remember for three reasons.
The main one is State Auditor Beth Wood, after conducting a probe, having released a report taking certain current and former city officials to task.
The second one is the proposed downtown development project suffering a major setback because the developer ended up being indicted in federal court in Mississippi.
The third is the city’s computer system becoming a target of hackers.
Amid all of this, the City Council majority, led by Councilmen Andre Knight and Reuben Blackwell, also shepherded through quite a number of items, some of which provoked complaints on social media due to the cost to — or effect on — taxpayers.
And while 2020 saw much back-and-forth at the council table and lots of comments from citizens addressing the council, the focus early on was about what Wood was going to say about her office’s investigation into the finances and operations of Rocky Mount’s government.
In May and the day before Wood made the outcome public, the city — in an unheard-of move for an entity having been probed by the Office of the State Auditor — issued a lengthy news release giving the city’s version of Wood’s findings, along with the city’s response.
Wood, in subsequently releasing the findings of the investigation, refuted much of what was said in the city’s response.
The key finding was that multiple city officials allegedly prevented the city Business Services Center from attempting to collect $47,704 in utility bills owed by a councilman, who turned out to be Knight.
That finding alleged the $47,704 eventually was taken off the books by the city and also alleged Knight had since accumulated an additional $2,989 delinquent balance.
Additionally, the report said that City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney allegedly spent taxpayer funds on unallowable travel expenses and disregarded established city policy regulating spending while traveling.
The report also said that the Opportunities Industrialization Center, whose president and CEO is Blackwell, allegedly incorrectly benefited from downtown redevelopment project funds.
The report also said that the city’s engineering division did not properly review an expiring letter of credit in a case of a subdivision development in which since-former Mayor David Combs was identified as a partner.
A week after Wood released the report, regional television station WTVD aired an interview with Knight in which he said he did not ask for preferential treatment, did not engage in wrongdoing and made clear he will not resign.
Knight, in attempting to rebut Wood, said on camera, “I have proof, just like she do.”
Knight and Blackwell also are key supporters of the proposed downtown development project, the plans of which have called for a hotel, retail spaces and housing, all adjacent to the Rocky Mount Event Center.
In September, the Telegram reported that the businessman in the partnership of the proposed project, David Hunt of Jackson, Tenn., is charged in federal court in the Southern District of Mississippi.
Hunt is accused of being part of a bid-rigging scheme with a past official of that state’s department of education.
The city administration and the council majority had been trying to seek state Local Government Commission approval of Hunt building the parking garage part of the proposed downtown development project.
The LGC is part of State Treasurer Dale Folwell’s office and had held off acting on the proposed project because of the probe of the city by Wood and her team.
Councilman Lige Daughtridge raised questions and concerns in being a dissenting voice against the proposed project.
The proposed project suffered an embarrassment in August because the Nash County Travel and Tourism Board voted to issue a letter of concern to the LGC with detailed reasons.
Folwell said he believed the charges against Hunt “cast a troubling shadow on the venture.”
“In light of the serious nature of the indictment, a prompt and thorough investigation is warranted before any taxpayer money is approved to pay for this project,” he said.
The council eventually moved to suspend the request of the LGC for approval of the parking garage part of the proposed project.
The city would face more troubles because of a disruption in August to the municipal computer system — and the city soon began calling this an “unprecedented event.”
The city issued a news release saying, “Although the city’s investigation is ongoing, the city can confirm that it was the victim of a sophisticated cyberattack that involved the encryption of certain city systems.”
The city eventually called a news conference, which was led by Small-Toney, City Finance Director Amy Staton, Mayor Sandy Roberson and then-Police Chief George Robinson.
The public found out that a person or persons had hacked the city’s computer network by using Conti ransomware — and the municipality, based on recommendations from authorities, had refused to pay a ransom.
Conti is a reference to a family of ransomware and can be used to target corporate networks.
The public also learned that the demand was for a payment with Bitcoin digital currency.
Among other items in 2020 that Knight and Blackwell directed through or took the lead in:
- Ordering in June the removal of the Confederate monument, which was just south of the interchange with U.S. 64 and Benvenue Road. The vote was 6-1, with Councilman W.B. Bullock voting no, and the cost would end up exceeding $281,000.
- Approving in December a more than $260,000 purchase of what had long ago been a service station at Thomas Street and Atlantic Avenue. Small-Toney said a failing culvert in the vicinity needs replacing, but Daughtridge voted no because he said, in part, that he did not believe the city needed to spend this money when the funds could be spent on items such as affordable housing. Edgecombe County records show the property worth $54,437 for taxation purposes.
- Approving in March an order to temporarily ban disconnecting utility services due to nonpayment of bills, with the purpose being to ease the burden on customers anticipating economic hardships due to the coronavirus pandemic. Daughtridge from the start raised concerns — and by October, the council lifted the order after the city administration in a document said residents and small businesses were $3 million behind in payments.