A line of speakers used the podium in the city council chamber during Monday’s council regular meeting to condemn state Senate Bill 473.
They included Bronson Williams, a broadcast journalist who frequently addresses the council; the Rev. Nehemiah Smith, who also frequently addresses the council; and Dr. Kim E. Koo, who also frequently addresses the council.
Williams said that while he does not believe the verbiage of the proposed legislation is racist, “I do believe the spirit of the bill was undergirded by those who are not fans of how the city is directing its dollars to areas that were once neglected.
“And this fight for Rocky Mount has been long needed and long overdue,” Williams said of the latter.
Williams also included a message by playing on a line by the late Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson by saying, “When you’re digging one ditch, be sure you dig another because the one you dig just might be for you.”
Senate Bill 473 would make it a felony offense for an elected official to personally benefit from his or her position. Although Senate Bill 473, if approved, would take effect Dec. 1, the proposed legislation comes in the aftermath of State Auditor Beth Wood’s May 2020 report of a probe of the City of Rocky Mount.
Smith on Monday said of the proposed legislation, “It’s not about a $47,000 light bill. It’s not about a councilman. It’s not about a director of a three-letter organization. That’s not what it’s about.
“What it is about is changing the very nature of the powers that the state auditor and the LGC (state Local Government Commission) would have,” Smith said. “We need to stop that by telling them: We won’t have it.”
Smith made clear he specifically believes Senate Bill 473 would transform the state auditor’s office from one that conducts investigations and makes referrals to one that does law enforcement.
Smith was referring to the part of Wood’s May 2020 report alleging multiple municipal officials prevented the city Business Services Center from attempting to collect $47,704 in utility bills owed by a councilman, who turned out to be Andre Knight.
Smith also was referring to the report alleging that the Opportunities Industrialization Center, whose president and CEO is Councilman Reuben Blackwell, allegedly incorrectly benefited from downtown redevelopment project funds.
Smith also was referring to the part of Senate Bill 473 that would require the state auditor to notify the Local Government Commission when an audit report results from an investigation of a unit of local government, and allow the LGC, once that report is released, to be involved in that local government’s audit process for up to three years.
Additionally, Senate Bill 473 would make it a misdemeanor offense for a public official to participate in making or administering a contract with — and including the awarding of money to — any nonprofit organization with which the official is affiliated.
Smith on Monday made clear he believes that what will happen if Senate Bill 473 becomes law is when a nonprofit, an example being the Ripple Effects empowerment center, wants funding via the City of Rocky Mount and a municipal official has a loose association with the organization, then the interpretation can be that official is a criminal.
“So what’s going to happen is nobody is going to get anything — and perhaps what they wanted in the first place,” Smith said.
Koo on Monday spoke as a member of the Rocky Mount Racial Justice Group and the Black Power Coalition.
Koo said Senate Bill 473, “with a sudden, self-righteous rediscovery of accountability and transparency,” is being used by “a racist cabal” in the General Assembly to go back in time and also is part of a national trend to beat back popular resistance characterized by the Black Lives Matter movement and fueled by the continued deterioration of living conditions.
“Folks who do not think they are racist, but objectively do the work of racists, are those who fight tooth and nail at every step to turn back the clock and to keep the poor poorer and the Edgecombe side of Rocky Mount in continued decay,” she said. “It is my contention that anyone here who actively supports Senate Bill 473 becomes a pawn of the racists — and is doing their dirty work for them.”
The speakers on Monday included Blackwell’s son, Cooper, who has at times addressed the council.
Cooper Blackwell said he has on his internet-based storage platform 458 screenshots dating as far back as 2019, including of postings online by “white supremacists” whom he claimed colluded to get Wood to come investigate and oust his father and Knight.
Cooper Blackwell noted what he has includes a picture of a former municipal employee standing in front of the Office of the State Auditor, nasty comments posted about council members and what seemed to be leaked information in advance about what was going to be in Wood’s May 2020 report.
“And so, we’ve been fighting this fight for a long time. And the evidence is there,” Cooper Blackwell said.
Not all of the speakers were against Senate Bill 473.
Resident Samuel Battle, who frequently addresses the council, in his remarks on Monday said, “I don’t trust none of you. That’s the God-knows truth.”
Battle made clear that he represents poor people in the community and that he believes large amounts of funding are going for redeveloping downtown when he believes funding needs to be allocated to help youths.
“My people are out there starving and killing and shooting — and we ain’t getting no money trying to help these people,” Battle said.
Council regular meetings include a public input period in which residents can have up to three minutes each to address the council.
Although speakers addressing the council are not supposed to single out council members by name, Battle referred to Wood’s May 2020 report alleging Knight having the more than $47,700 utility bill, which was eventually taken off the books, and also alleging Knight had since accumulated an additional $2,989 delinquent balance.
“See, y’all try to take up for your people, but you’ve got to hold your people accountable for what they do,” Battle said.
Later during Monday’s council regular meeting, Councilman Blackwell rebutted Battle about the reference to youths.
Blackwell made clear all one has to do is stay for a council meeting to learn about activities funded through numerous nonprofits and other organizations, look at the budget for the Parks and Recreation Department and look at the municipality’s investment in parks.