Two frequent speakers during City Council regular meetings recently made clear the City of Rocky Mount in the future needs to get ahead of stories instead of letting someone else provide the narratives.
During the public input phase of the Sept. 13 council regular meeting, the Rev. Nehemiah Smith commented in detail about the subject and Bronson Williams also addressed the matter.
Smith noted he was not wearing his hat as a pastor, but rather his former hats from having worked in public relations and as a teacher.
Smith also was commenting in the context of the Telegram reporting on Sept. 11 that the City of Rocky Mount — after months of requests by means of the state public records law — disclosed that the cost of the municipality’s 2021 retreat totaled $70,444.99. The retreat was held April 7-9 at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville.
During the Sept. 13 council meeting, Smith told the municipal officials he would be addressing them as his students. Smith also told interim City Communications, Marketing and Public Relations Director Jessie Nunery if he started to lie, then to raise a hand as a signal and he would sit down.
Smith is a graduate of Grambling State University in Louisiana and for a time he worked in Grambling’s Office of University Relations.
Smith said he learned from his mentor the following about public relations or any organization: “You never allow anyone else to tell your story. You tell your story because if you tell the story, then that’s the story that people are going to first and foremost look at.”
As for the retreat, Smith told the municipal officials, “You should have taken the information that you got in April, no later than May, given it over to the Tell-A-Lie — I’m sorry, Freudian slip, Telegram — allowed them to run the story, and then you wouldn’t be talking about a spring event in the fall.
“Now, that makes all the sense in the world to me as a PR professional,” Smith said.
“You’ve got to start putting the information out in a timely manner so that you won’t have to deal with the Tell-A- — there I go again with that Freudian slip, Telegram — because allowing them to tell your story or someone else to tell your story is like giving an arsonist gasoline and a book of matches,” he said.
“The arsonist is going to do exactly what he has set out to do, that is, burn down your organization,” he said. “You have enough enemies as it is. Don’t be your own worst enemy.”
Smith in the past has criticized the Telegram while speaking during City Council regular meetings and has been supportive of the present 4-3 council majority.
Smith on Sept. 13 emphasized that there are many other issues needing to be dealt with, such as the municipal garbage collection, which has been operating with a shortage of employees.
“You don’t need to deal with something that happened in April in September,” he said. “Get the information out and let it be over with because if not, you’re going to see the arsonist with the gasoline and the matches. And they’re going to burn down your organization because they’re going to tell it how they want to tell it.”
He ended his remarks by saying, “Class dismissed.”
Williams, a broadcast journalist who has twice run for mayor, told the municipal officials that year after year — and time after time — he has always asked the city to do better in having transparency.
Williams added that he believes the pattern seems to be for the municipality to hold off releasing information to the public and news organizations.
“And delaying information, as the teacher, Nehemiah Smith, said, allows someone else to tell your story,” Williams said. “That’s a bad position to be in.”
At the same time, Williams spoke of the more than $70,400 having been spent on the retreat in the context of the city’s current operating budget being more than $200 million.
He told the municipal officials that when they speak about community development items — such as a proposed community land trust and a proposed bond issue — and the long-term impacts that can really benefit Rocky Mount, then they would have been able to tell how that $70,000 was best spent.
“But again, when someone else tells your own story, it’s hard to make that argument,” he said. “Be in front of it. Be the leaders in which every citizen in this community elected each and every one of you to be. That is your task.”
Also during the Sept. 13 meeting, Tom Harris, a retired banker who is seeking election to a seat on the council, told of being quite surprised in getting the news via the Telegram about what he believed was the excessive cost of the gathering in Asheville.
Harris said his recollection was that the public was told early on the cost of the retreat would be budgeted at $18,500.
“Obviously, it went over $51,500, or 270-something percent,” he said. “And that is just not a good way of how our city manages the taxpayers’ money.”
Harris made clear he realizes state law gives the city or any public entity in North Carolina a reasonable period of time to respond to requests for public information.
“But six months is maybe too long,” Harris said.
Harris also asked the municipal officials whether it would be more prudent in scheduling events and making sure when a budget amount is publicly disclosed that such events be held within close proximity to that budgeted amount.
“And hopefully we can see that going forward,” Harris said.
He also said that he went to the Sept. 9 meeting about the proposed community land trust and that he supports affordable housing.
Harris said that in the future he would like for there to be a disclosure of those who would receive inducements to build houses, the intended uses of the funds and the specific locations of those houses.
He said that overall, “Transparency and openness leads to accountability — and accountability leads to credibility.”
The council, in a 4-3 vote on Feb. 8, chose Asheville as the location for the 2021 retreat, with the council majority wanting to see how officials in the Buncombe County seat have addressed issues of affordable housing. Council members Lige Daughtridge, W.B. Bullock and Chris Miller voted no.
What followed was an outcry locally via social media against the decision.
City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney then gave an interview to television station WRAL to explain in more detail why the retreat was going to be held in Asheville.
WRAL reported that Small-Toney said the budget for a retreat ranges anywhere from $16,000 to $18,000.
WRAL, citing a public records request, reported that the cost of the 2019 retreat was $14,212.54 and that the cost of the 2018 retreat was $16,185.81.
The 2019 retreat was held at the Rizzo Center in Chapel Hill and the 2018 retreat was held at the Embassy Suites Wilmington Riverfront.
The Telegram reported in 2016 that the retreat for that year, which was held at the Marriott in Greensboro, cost $12,824.81.
The newspaper reported that the cost of the 2016 retreat was high when compared to more recent retreats.
The 2015 retreat cost $6,189.81. That retreat mostly was held at the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the space was free, but that retreat was cut short due to ice storms. That retreat concluded at the Aloft Hotel in Chapel Hill, where the participating Rocky Mount municipal officials had been staying.
The 2014 retreat, which was held in Durham, cost $9,225.12.
The 2020 retreat was to be held in Raleigh but was canceled due to the spread of the coronavirus.