ROCKY MOUNT — City Council decisions to award controversial housing grants begins with an illegal, secret subcommittee in violation of the state’s open meetings law. The most recent round of funding includes $25,000 to a drug convict with tax debt.
The housing grant subcommittee isn’t advertised ahead of time, isn’t open to the public and meeting minutes aren’t kept, according to city officials — which means the subcommittee operates outside of the state’s required open meetings law, according to legal and academic experts.
The Rocky Mount City Council voted Jan. 10 to give $25,000 — part of an $805,000 grant — to a limited liability corporation created in November by Carvell Puddy, a resident convicted of maintaining a place for a controlled substance. Puddy owes at least $9,000 in back taxes.
Puddy’s properties, which another housing grant recipient gave him in late 2020, were recommended to the council by a subcommittee composed of three council members: Andre Knight, Richard Joyner and T.J. Walker, who is the city’s mayor pro tem.
The subcommittee met Jan. 6 with only the three council members in attendance, said Kirk Brown, the city’s director of communications, marketing and public relations.
“The Jan. 6 subcommittee meeting was not advertised or posted beforehand and it was not open to the public,” Brown said. “Since only three council members took part in the meeting, it is my understanding that there was no legal requirement to do so.”
Three council members don’t make a council quorum; however, the subcommittee, formed by the council, is a public body and can’t legally meet the way Brown described, according to two university professors who teach on the subject of state open meetings laws.
OPEN MEETINGS LAW
Subcommittees are public bodies that must comply with N.C. General Statute 143-318.10(b), said Amanda Martin, a senior lecturing fellow at the Duke Law School in Durham and general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association.
Commonly known as the open meetings law, G.S. 146-318 states that a public body means any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council or other body that is composed of two or more members and is authorized to exercise legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative or advisory functions.
The subcommittee hasn’t followed the state’s rules on open meetings, said Frayda S. Bluestein, David M. Lawrence distinguished professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina School of Government in Chapel Hill.
“The subcommittee should provide notice of the meeting, and they are required to have minutes,” Bluestein said.
Brown confirmed that no minutes of the subcommittee meeting exist and no audio or video recordings of the meeting were made. Brown said he didn’t know whether the subcommittee was created by a vote from the council.
The council created the subcommitee in 2008 with Knight and former Councilman Tom Rogers and Councilwoman Lois Watkins as members, according to archived meeting minutes.
No record could be found of the council voting to place Joyner or Walker on the subcommittee.
SECOND VOTE REQUIRED?
Brown said action the council took on Jan. 10, his first day at work, was only an allocation of funds with a second vote by the council required before money is disbursed.
“The city staff will now complete a thorough vetting process of the proposed projects and the entities seeking the money to make sure all relevant qualifications are met,” Brown said. “When that process is completed, the city will draft written agreements with each recipient. It is my understanding that those agreements must again be approved by the council before any funds will be disbursed.”
The process Brown described hasn’t been followed in the past.
The council has only ever taken one vote on the grant funding each funding round, according to meeting minutes.
For instance, on Nov. 25, 2019, the council voted to divide $450,000 between six recipients.
City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney explained the process during that meeting.
“It was explained that information, including an application, is gathered and provided to a subcommittee for consideration,” according to meeting minutes.
On May 26, 2020, with an agenda item titled, “Consideration of Authorization for the City Manager to Execute the following Housing Incentive Agreements,” the council voted to grant a total of $435,000 divided between four recipients.
On Nov. 9, 2020, the council voted to give a total of $533,830 divided between five recipients.
Councilman Reuben Blackwell explained during the meeting that “at the time the council approves the projects that the projects meet the priorities set by council for safe and decent housing,” according to minutes.
Again, the council voted only once that round to approve funding, based on the subcommittee’s recommendation.
After The Enterprise reported on the funding process in its Jan. 26 edition, changes appear to be underway.
Brown said the housing incentive grant program has evolved over the years as the need for affordable housing has increased in blighted and underserved neighborhoods.
“I am told that the program now has more funding and a broader array of applicants than in the past,” Brown said. “Regardless of any prior practices, the key point to emphasize is that the interim city manager has laid out the process that the staff is now following with the clear goal of making sure that every applicant meets the relevant qualifications before receiving any city funds.”
Longtime city employee Peter Varney returned last week to serve as interim city manager with Small-Toney’s upcoming departure.
City manager since 2017, Small-Toney has announced she is stepping down at the end of February and will be on administrative leave until then.
“The vetting process is underway and it is being overseen by the city’s Community and Business Development Department,” Brown said. “I don’t have a precise timeline, but I can tell you that the city has worked with some of these applicants, Berkshire Acres and Around the Y, for example, in the past, and it is likely that the vetting process and drafting of written agreements for these applicants will move fairly quickly. There is another group of applicants that the city is less familiar with, and the vetting process will take somewhat longer for them.”
Written agreements between the city and each grant applicant will be presented to the City Council in two batches, Brown said.
“I don’t know precisely when those votes will take place, but I do know that no funds will be disbursed to any applicant without approval of a written agreement,” Brown said.