Mayor Sandy Roberson received criticism from the majority of the City Council about his communications via the news media in the aftermath of the recent findings of State Auditor Beth Wood and her team’s probe of the City of Rocky Mount’s finances and operations.
A council special work session was held Tuesday and led by Councilman Andre Knight in his capacity as mayor pro tem. A focus of council discussion was about a press release that Roberson, through a news media contact of his, emailed on May 19.
The press release stated that four council members refused to attend an upcoming emergency meeting of the council.
Of particular issue, as part of the press release, was Roberson and a city police sergeant posed together in a photograph. The photograph showed both holding paperwork of service, apparently in connection with the meeting.
During Tuesday’s work session, Roberson sat quietly. At the end of council discussion of the item, Roberson expressed appreciation for the suggestions and said he would take them under advisement.
During the work session, Councilman T.J. Walker told Roberson, “With the utmost respect that I have for you as an individual, as a businessman and your zeal to be a leader, I believe the way in which you handled this situation was very, very controversial in a time that’s already tense and controversial for our city.”
Walker suggested Roberson go back to the news media he provided the press release to “and correct the lies, because I took that as political headshots to my character, to my integrity and who I am as an individual. I never refused to come to your special called meeting.”
Roberson, in a teleconference on May 18, had stated he was calling an emergency meeting for May 21, but the meeting was renamed a special council meeting and was reset to an hour prior to Tuesday’s work session.
Walker had told the Telegram his response to an email from Roberson to all of the council members was to suggest that the May 21 meeting be held the same day as an already-scheduled council regular meeting on Tuesday and to adjust the time.
During Tuesday’s work session, Walker said he received numerous phone calls for a couple of days, some from as far away as Florida, Texas and Virginia, with the callers telling him he needed to go to the May 21 meeting.
“And I found that as a threat to myself, to my family — and again, I took it as a political headshot,” Walker said.
Councilwoman Chris Miller said her preference was along the lines of Walker’s about wanting to wait until the day of the council’s regular meeting.
Miller said City Clerk Pamela Casey collected and sent email responses from council members to Roberson, but Miller said she began hearing that she and four or five other council members had refused to attend the May 21 meeting.
Miller told of receiving a flood of emails and calls to her cell phone and landline phone demanding she go and asking why she would not go to the May 21 meeting.
“Refuse was never in my communication,” Miller said. “That was somebody else’s editing. I guess it suited somebody else’s purposes.
“Division is not what we should be about,” Miller said. “If you are promoting a division, you have a different agenda.”
Councilman Reuben Blackwell said he never responded to an email about meeting on May 21.
Blackwell said that was because all he could foresee was a week full of press about calling everyone corrupt and making allegations about something being wrong with municipal elected officials except for Roberson.
“You can’t do that, my friend, and then come back and say, ‘Now, let’s hold hands and be unified,’” Blackwell told Roberson.
“We can’t talk unity and then do things that create division — and then get exasperated when no one unifies,” he said. “I have no problem working with you, but I will not be dictated to. I will not dictate to you — and you will not dictate to me. That’s all I ask.”
Councilman Lige Daughtridge recalled that before the noon lunch hour on May 14 — and the day before Wood and her team went public with their report — he saw a press release from City Hall.
The press release listed the municipality’s version of Wood and her team’s findings and the municipality’s responses to them.
Daughtridge said he emailed the municipality’s news media contact asking questions because he thought notice of the release of the audit report would be given to the municipality 24 hours in advance.
Daughtridge said the press release was news to him and added, “I think we’ve got a double standard going on when we’re up here talking.”
Earlier during the work session, Knight said of the photograph of Roberson and the police sergeant, which appeared via area and community publications, “To me, I was very dismayed about it — and it was a scare tactic.
“And it reminds me of when people were implicated, tried and hung and killed without due process,” Knight said. “And to me, when you take the law and misconstrue it, it’s very disheartening — and I didn’t like it. And it’s a form of intimidation.”