An attempt by city councilmen against state Senate Bill 473 to secure passage of a council resolution opposing the proposed legislation went down to defeat in a 4-3 council vote.
During Monday’s council regular meeting, Councilman T.J. Walker broke from a routine procedure of voting with Councilmen Reuben Blackwell, Andre Knight and Richard Joyner on items.
Senate Bill 473, if approved, would make clear that, effective on Dec. 1, an elected local official in North Carolina cannot receive financial or personal gain from the government he or she is serving.
Walker, moments before the council vote on Monday, said he believes Senate Bill 473 is racially targeted given communications already have made known the proposed legislation was motivated by what happened in Rocky Mount more than a year ago.
“And if you can look throughout history, my people have been oppressed due to governmental officials that have benefited off of everyone’s tax dollars and rights and privileges,” Walker said.
“So, the idea of it being inspired by Rocky Mount, it’s obvious that it’s racially motivated,” Walker said. “However, I do not support a city resolution on our behalf because I believe that there is a way to fight and if we’re really going to fight this, I’ve already expressed my concerns of how to fight it.”
Walker did not elaborate about the latter, but he said, “When I see resolutions, I see plaques on the walls. And I see it sort of as a ribbon, sort of a token of saying, ‘Hey, listen, this is something that was done.’”
Senate Bill 473 comes in the aftermath of State Auditor Beth Wood in May 2020 issuing a blistering report of the outcome of an investigation of the City of Rocky Mount by her office. The findings particularly alleged that Knight, Blackwell and City Manager Small-Toney received preferential treatment.
Blackwell and Knight have in the council chamber made clear their opposition to Senate Bill 473 and the subject of a proposed resolution came up during the June 28 council regular meeting.
Mayor Sandy Roberson, who chairs council regular meetings, made clear he had not yet spoken to the matter of giving the council the chance to go on record against Senate Bill 473.
During Monday’s council regular meeting, the subject of a proposed resolution came up again. Blackwell wanted to know whether there was a will as a council to discuss, deliberate and vote and if so, then when.
Joyner, as the current mayor pro tem, chairs council work sessions. Joyner asked for the council members to look at the text of the proposed resolution and provide feedback, with the hope being to take up the matter at the next work session, which would be on Aug. 9.
Knight made clear that he believes the matter is time-sensitive and that if a proposed resolution was ready, then he would like for Roberson, Small-Toney or City Clerk Pamela Casey to read aloud the text and for the council to discuss whether to support the document.
Roberson, under questioning from Blackwell, said he would be fine with reading aloud the text of the proposed resolution right before the council went into a closed session to discuss matters of attorney-client privilege.
Near the end of the open session part of the meeting, Roberson read aloud the text of the proposed resolution. Small-Toney said the text was provided to the council members shortly before the start of the meeting.
After Roberson read aloud the text, he sought a motion to go into the closed session and he got one from Councilman Lige Daughtridge. Joyner seconded.
Knight said he was confused and asked Roberson, “You just read this for us to do what? Come back in two weeks?”
Roberson made clear that he was asked to read aloud the text, that he read it and that the council would have to decide whether to include this on the agenda.
Blackwell said of Joyner earlier recommending a two-week delay, “Is that reasonable? Does that make it a moot point? Is that the point, to kill it, so it doesn’t have to matter? Or is the point to do something so that we just know where everybody stands?”
Joyner said he did not have a problem with putting it forward during the meeting.
Joyner sought advice from City Attorney Jep Rose, who said the council could postpone going into the closed session until the matter of the proposed resolution first had been considered.
Councilwoman Chris Miller said of the proposed resolution, “I would have appreciated receiving this ahead of this meeting.”
The majority of the council voted to postpone going into closed session.
Daughtridge said he agreed with Miller in that the council had just been given the text of the proposed resolution.
“And I don’t believe it’s enough time to digest,” he said.
At the same time, Daughtridge noted he is one of seven council members.
The majority of the council voted for taking up the matter of the proposed resolution.
Blackwell made a motion to adopt the proposed resolution, with the deletion of a line that would have encouraged state legislators to amend Senate Bill 473. Knight seconded.
Councilman W.B. Bullock, who has mostly been quiet during council meetings in recent years, spoke up and said he believes the council was making a mistake by voting on something council members found out about an hour earlier.
Bullock also said he believes most people do not realize Senate Bill 473 applies statewide and not just in Rocky Mount.
“And I think we need to make sure that we understand that,” Bullock said. “And some of these rules in this bill do not apply to us today.”
Bullock said he believes the proposed resolution needed to be put off so all council members could have the time to study the text and return in two weeks.
Blackwell said Senate Bill 473 was not new to discussion in the council chamber and in Rocky Mount.
“And if we can talk about what’s in the bill, then you already know what’s in the bill,” Blackwell said. “You already know whether you support or oppose it. And I’m just saying: Just stand with your convictions, whatever they are.”
A key sponsor of Senate Bill 473 is state Sen. Lisa Stone Barnes, R-Nash, and Wood also supports the proposed legislation.
An online legislative summary of Senate Bill 473 briefly notes as background Wood’s office’s probe of the City of Rocky Mount and includes a link to Wood’s office’s report from May 2020.
Blackwell said he believes Senate Bill 473 has “erroneous information.”
“It calls it ‘The Corrupt Elected Official Bill’ and it has Councilman Knight’s name, my name, Rochelle Small-Toney’s name and OIC’s name,” Blackwell said, not specifying the source he was citing.
Blackwell also said, “We have neither been charged nor convicted of any corruption. You have one person and a senator that have labeled us as corrupt because of their perspective. I could label them corrupt because of my perspective.”
Blackwell is president and CEO of the OIC and Knight chairs the OIC’s board. The OIC stands for the Opportunities Industrialization Center, which seeks to help provide residents with employment training and health care.
Knight said he believes what is going on is taking a page out of the playbook in 1898: “Target, discredit, falsely accuse, criminalize Black elected officials. Throw them in jail.”
The year 1898 is a reference to white supremacists in a coup d’etat forcing out Wilmington’s democratically elected government.