Rocky Mount City Hall

The 2021 City of Rocky Mount retreat is scheduled for next week in Asheville.

The Telegram is in the process of trying to get more information about the 2021 City of Rocky Mount retreat scheduled for mid to late next week at a resort in Asheville.

During the Feb. 8 council work session, the council voted 4-3 to have the retreat in the Buncombe County seat.

The retreat is going to be held at the Grove Park Inn. The council majority chose Asheville as the location to have the retreat to gather details for the future development of housing in Rocky Mount.

That choice, however, prompted outcries of protest via social media, particularly given the coronavirus pandemic and the difficult economic times for many locally.

Questions also persisted about why the council majority did not view the Rocky Mount Event Center as the place to have the retreat.

The facility opened in October 2018 after having been completed at a cost of $48 million and had long been closed to large gatherings due to COVID-19.

The City of Rocky Mount’s 2020 retreat had been scheduled to be in Durham but was canceled as COVID-19 continued to spread.

City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney, in an interview with Raleigh television station WRAL with a March 1 online posting date, said Asheville is a very progressive city in which a number of measures are in place to provide affordable housing there.

Small-Toney said about 40 percent of Rocky Mount’s residents are cost-burdened and are paying too much of their income for housing.

As for the choice of the location for the 2021 retreat, Small-Toney said, “You know, the Grove Park Inn is a place of familiarity with some of the members of council — and that has more to do with their tenure on the council.”

The WRAL reporter asked Small-Toney to elaborate about how council members’ familiarity with a location helps when having a retreat.

“Well, it’s like any place else,” Small-Toney replied. “When you go on vacation or you go to a worksite or you go to a conference, I think people are a little more at ease when they have been some place and have experienced that particular venue.”

The Telegram on March 11 emailed Small-Toney a request for certain information about the retreat and cited the State Public Records Act.

The newspaper in the email copied the city’s spokesman; the municipality’s consultant for communications, marketing and public relations; Mayor Sandy Roberson; Councilman Richard Joyner, who presently doubles as mayor pro tem; and City Attorney Jep Rose.

The email asked whether the city intends to broadcast the retreat live via social media or any other means as retreat business is being conducted.

Roberson on Thursday evening told the Telegram that he met with Small-Toney on Wednesday morning and specifically asked her about whether the retreat will be aired via social media, to which she said yes.

The Telegram’s email on March 11 also asked whether the city — via a municipal credit card or the municipal bank account — has booked rooms at the Grove Park Inn for the elected city officials, other city officials, city employees and the city elected officials’ and other city officials’ and city employees’ spouses or companions.

Specifically, the email asked if the rooms have been booked, then when and to provide the amounts confirmed, in the base cost, plus taxes and any other costs per room.

The email also asked if the rooms have been booked, then who will be staying in each room, for how long and at what total cost to the municipality.

The email also asked whether the city has booked any other services at the Grove Park Inn, with examples being for conference rooms and on-site serving of meals and on what days and for how much.

Another part of the email focused on a request for, after the completion of the retreat, copies of travel expense forms submitted to the municipality seeking reimbursement for those expenses resulting from being on official business.

Although the travel expense part of the email would be post-retreat information, the newspaper has not received a response to the questions that would apply prior to the retreat.

The Telegram on Thursday morning emailed Small-Toney a list of questions seeking basic information about the retreat. They included whether an agenda was ready or whether she has an estimated time the agenda will be made available to the news media and residents.

During the council work session on March 8, Small-Toney advised of a request for a special called meeting three days later.

Small-Toney said the purpose would be to discuss preparations for the long-range capital improvement plan, as well as receive information from the council in preparation for the fiscal year 2021-22 operating funds.

Small-Toney said that because the retreat will be more single-focused, the concern was the lack of time to make a presentation about finances for the fiscal year 2021-22 or receive feedback from the council.

That special called meeting was put off due to concern about stormy weather.

The Telegram’s email to Small-Toney on Thursday morning asked whether the plan is to still have that meeting before the City Council leaves for Asheville or whether the item about the finances and the improvement plan would be woven into the retreat.

There was no response to that email as of press time on Thursday evening.

Roberson on Thursday evening told the Telegram he has not received a copy of the retreat agenda.

Roberson said he does not believe the finances and the improvement item will be discussed at the retreat, other than looking at housing and in more of an education session.

Roberson said the latter was based on his speaking with Small-Toney on Wednesday morning.

He said she gave him “a skeleton review” of the retreat agenda — and he noted his information is that there are only two components in which the council will break out and talk.

“If she sent it (a copy of the agenda), it’s after I left the office, which is entirely possible,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the case.”

A City of Rocky Mount spokesman late Friday morning issued a news release saying the priorities for the retreat are to improve the housing conditions of citizens and to implement the most effective way to put policies into place to promote affordable housing for every neighborhood and community.

The news release said as part of these initiatives, the retreat is going to provide an opportunity to explore community land trusts, housing stabilization and short- and long-term incentives.

The council has been hearing details from experts about community land trusts, which are nonprofit, community-based organizations intended to make sure there is community stewardship of land.

The news release said the City of Rocky Mount is going to develop strategies for these priorities which work in concert with ongoing efforts to promote economic development and growth for the entire city.

As of Friday evening, there has not yet been any posting on the City of Rocky Mount's website or Facebook page about the specific retreat agenda that would show who is either going to speak or give presentations and on what days and at what times.