A report by State Auditor Beth Wood and her team took City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney to task for spending taxpayer funds on unallowable travel expenses, including in an extravagant manner in instances.
The report, which was made public on Friday, said Small-Toney, who has been the city’s chief day-to-day operations officer since July 2017, disregarded established city policy regulating spending while traveling.
Specifically, the report said Small-Toney believed she was exempt from the policy and not subject to per diem amounts for meals. Per diem is the amount of money provided to someone for business-related spending.
The city’s per diem rate is $8 for breakfast, $11 for lunch and $21 for dinner.
The state audit report said Small-Toney, in an email in October 2018, said, “I am not to be held to any city policy or practice that restricts my food choices, the number of times I chose to eat or the cost of my meals while on official business and/or travel for the city.”
According to the state audit report, when investigators asked Small-Toney about the per diem rates, she replied, “I don’t even know what the per diem is.”
The State Auditor’s Office said the failure to comply with the travel policy can be traced back to the time when Small-Toney’s predecessor, Charles Penny, was the city manager, resulting in a total of $1,575 in unnecessary travel expenses.
The state audit report showed the main expenses at issue can be traced to Small-Toney.
The city, in response to a draft report by Wood and her team after the end of the probe, said $1,416.12 of the $1,575 resulted from what Small-Toney spent at two out-of-city conferences in connection with the City Council and the city staff.
The city said Small-Toney spent $858.62 in November 2017 while at a National League of Cities conference in Charlotte and spent $557.50 in August 2018 while at an ElectriCities conference in Asheville.
The state audit report on Friday said the city, rather than addressing the failure to comply with the travel policy, focused on $892 of the $1,416.12 being related to two dinners at the conferences.
The report said the city failed to note that these unallowable expenses included meals for spouses of council members or that the cost for each meal exceeded the allowable per diem rates.
According to the report, Small-Toney used the city’s credit card to charge an average of $95.40 a person for one meal and $50.69 a person for the other meal, instead of the allowable $21 per diem dinner rate.
The city’s response to the draft report said Small-Toney presented documentation to City Finance Director Amy Staton saying additional meal expenses were required as a reasonable accommodation for a medical condition. The city also said information had been placed in the records of the city’s officer for occupational health.
The city said Small-Toney believed she was granted a medical exception because Staton did not direct her to do anything differently.
The city’s response does not say what kind of medical condition Small-Toney has, but the state audit report on Friday said city policy did not include medical exceptions to the per diem rates.
The report also said a review of Small-Toney’s meal expenses included spending on extravagant items, such as lobster and steak dinners, with the total cost being $87.30 for one meal and $74.06 on another occasion.
The report also said a review of Small-Toney’s meal expenses included spending on an individual steamed seafood bucket at a total cost of $56.95.
The State Auditor’s Office recommended Small-Toney should comply with the travel policy and said city employees should be required to sign forms saying they have read and will comply with the policy.
The State Auditor’s Office also said the city should seek repayment from Small-Toney for travel expenses that exceeded allowable amounts.