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EDITORIAL

Our Opinion: Insulate public utilities from cities' politics

Posted on July 1, 2021

OpinionEditorials

Dave DiFilippo cartoon

North Carolina’s most prominent civil rights organization entered the fray this week in a yearlong debate over misspending and misconduct at Rocky Mount City Hall.

The statewide NAACP conference issued a fiery statement defending City Councilman Andre Knight, whose $47,704 Rocky Mount utility debt was forgiven, questioning the motives of State Auditor Beth Wood, whose probe uncovered the improper handling of his accounts, and criticizing Sen. Lisa Barnes, who introduced a bill to prevent elected officials from receiving preferential treatment.

NAACP President T. Anthony Spearman raised a few issues that merit consideration, but those lucid points are all but obscured in an 1,145-word screed that invokes the deadly 1898 coup against Black leaders in Wilmington, mischaracterizes Barnes’ legislation and casts former President Donald Trump as a foil in a state issue that doesn’t involve him.

Spearman accuses Wood, a Democrat who’s earned bipartisan praise as a diligent public servant, and Barnes, a Republican rising star in the GOP-led General Assembly, of undermining Black voters by targeting African American elected officials. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and here, Spearman comes up short.

In fairness to all and in service of the truth, we’ll explore the most salient point the NAACP raises: Debate has inordinately focused on Knight rather than the decision-makers from whose largesse he benefited.

“The truth is that Councilman Knight never even knew that $47,000 was written off, never voted for the write off and never lobbied for the write off,” Spearman wrote.

Knight surely knew his service hadn’t been disconnected after entire years of nonpayment. We doubt the average Rocky Mount resident will ever experience such a fortunate oversight.

Then-Finance Director Amy Staton wrote off Knight’s unpaid utility bills in 2013 and 2017 under the tenure of two former city managers, Charles Penny and Steve Raper, according to public records The Enterprise obtained

In a June 2016 email exchange with the subject line “Council Member Knights Utilities,” Penny instructs Staton: “Ask the Business office not to call Council member Knight about his utilities. If there is an issue either go through you or me. Thanks.”

Staton responded “ok,” indicating she understood and would prevent her staff from treating Knight’s past-due accounts like those of any other customer.

If that’s not a smoking gun, it’s enough red flags to outfit all 193 flagpoles at the United Nations building. Why was a utility customer identified by his role as an elected council member? Why were rank-and-file employees told not to collect payment on his delinquent accounts? Why were the city’s highest-ranking executive and one of its department heads personally handling a mundane billing matter that’s otherwise delegated to subordinates?

Spearman wrote that Knight’s debt was written off along with hundreds of other sums for customers “who were incorrectly billed or had debt that could no longer be collected because it exceeded the statute of limitations.”

If Knight was overbilled, he should have received notices explaining the error and providing an adjusted balance. Claims that he was unaware of the write-offs foreclose that possibility. If the debt was so old the city could no longer demand payment, did Rocky Mount’s top brass purposefully delay collection efforts to run out the clock?

Barnes introduced Senate Bill 473 after Rocky Mount’s council and manager brushed off a searing state audit that should have carried consequences. The bill would allow local governments to garnish elected officials’ wages if they don’t pay their bills and would make it a Class H felony for them to receive personal financial gain “by means of intimidation, undue influence or misuse of the employees of that political subdivision.”

No evidence has emerged showing Knight pressured Penny, Staton and Raper to intervene in utility collection attempts. If Knight didn’t seek special treatment, he has no reason to oppose a law criminalizing such conduct. The NAACP asserts that he did nothing wrong, yet it assails Barnes’ bill as an effort to target him as a Black elected official. These claims contradict each other.

Without proof that Knight threw his weight around, more scrutiny should fall on the functionaries who doled out the improper benefits.

While Penny and Raper are retired, Staton starts work this month as the city of Wilson’s chief financial officer. We hope City Manager Grant Goings has investigated her role in Knight’s utility write-offs and cleared her of wrongdoing. To maintain public trust, Wilson must address this matter expeditiously.

Like Rocky Mount, Wilson is a public power community that provides electric service to its residents. That arrangement has its advantages, but there are also drawbacks. Chief among them is the potential for political interference in utility policies and practices.

In Rocky Mount, it took the form of improper consideration given to a sitting council member. In Wilson, politics is the only obstacle to reducing electric late fees, as yearly transfers flow from Wilson Energy to a city council slush fund.

The N.C. Utilities Commission provides regulatory checks and balances for companies like Duke Energy, mediating customer disputes and reviewing proposed rate increases. Municipal utilities have no external oversight. They’re subsidiaries of city governments, and elected council members call the shots. We need only look to Rocky Mount to see the obvious potential for dysfunction.

North Carolina should build a firewall insulating city utility departments from local politicians and the hired guns who serve at their pleasure to protect the integrity of the former from the worst impulses of the latter. On that point, perhaps, Spearman, Knight, Wood and Barnes could all agree.

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