Rivers breaks tie vote to rehire Freeman as city manager
By Paul Nielsen The Daily Advance Staff Writer Oct 13, 2022
A divided Elizabeth City City Council voted Wednesday to rehire Montre Freeman as city manager a year after he was fired from the same job.
The move came just hours after the state’s deputy treasurer told City Council in an email that the Local Government Commission was “strongly opposed” to Freeman’s rehiring. Freeman was the city’s manager from January 2021 until his firing by city council on Sept. 30, 2021.
Mayor Kirk Rivers broke a 4-4 tie vote to offer the city’s vacant manager’s job to Freeman Wednesday night following City Council’s interviews with the former manager and one other finalist at City Hall.
Voting to rehire Freeman were 2nd Ward Councilor Javis Gibbs, Third Ward Councilors Kem Spence and Katherine Felton and Fourth Ward Councilor Johnnie Walton.
Voting against rehiring Freeman were First Ward Councilors Johnson Biggs and Joe Peel, 2nd Ward Councilwoman Rose Whitehurst and Fourth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Baxter.
The vote to rehire Freeman came with no debate after City Council returned from a more-than-three-hour closed session.
In an email to City Council, Deputy Treasurer Sharon Edmundson was critical of Freeman’s handling of financial affairs while he was town administrator of Enfield — the job he held before he was hired to be Elizabeth City’s city manager — and during his nine months in the city before being terminated last September.
Before the vote Peel told The Daily Advance that he believed Edmundson’s email was a warning that the state would take over control of the city’s finances if Freeman was rehired. The city has been on the LGC’s Unit Assistance List since 2020 due to internal financial control issues and concerns about the financial condition of the city’s general fund.
But Rivers brushed aside those concerns after the vote to rehire Freeman, saying that the current City Council has been fiscally responsible since it took office in June. He also said that he was still “processing” Edmundson’s email and that the city would reach out to the LGC.
“The (email) did not state that,” Rivers said of a possible state takeover. “Anything that took place, that was prior council. That was before this council. This council has maintained fiscal responsibility. We passed a budget that included no capital improvement projects.’’
Rivers said the current City Council took office without a complete financial picture because the audit for the 2020-21 fiscal year, which was due last Oct. 31, still has not been completed.
“This council is concerned about not spending money and making sure the audit is finalized,” Rivers said.
But in her email to city leaders Wednesday, Edmundson put the blame for the late audit on Freeman.
“It was Mr. Freeman’s responsibility as the city manager to ensure the timely completion of the audit,” Edmundson wrote. “As a result of this delay, the 2022 audit also will be delayed.”
The city has still not submitted its audit for the 2020-21 fiscal year that was due last Oct. 31. The city will also miss this year’s Oct. 31 deadline for submitting its audit for the 2021-22 fiscal year. That’s because work on it has yet to start because the 2020-21 audit isn’t complete.
Last October, former interim City Manager Ralph Clark said the city was also 15 to 16 months behind in reconciling its bank statements when he started that same month. Those statements are now up to date.
If Clark’s timeline is correct that means the city got behind in reconciling its books in July or August of 2020. Former City Manager Rich Olson left the city for a job in Texas in August 2020. That means those statements may have started to fall behind under former interim manager Eddie Buffaloe and then Freeman.
Freeman replaced Olson as the permanent manager in January 2021 but was fired by City Council nine months later.
Rivers said Thursday he felt Freeman was the better candidate for the manager’s job after remote interviews with the two finalists Wednesday.
“Based off the decisions that I have stated when I was first elected, if it came to that decision (a 4-4 tie vote) that I would vote for Montre Freeman,” Rivers said.
If the state were to take control of the city’s finances LGC staff would serve as the finance officer and manage all financial operations of the city. That would include the LGC drafting the city’s budget, which could include the state setting property tax rates as well as water, sewer and electrical rates.
“When the Commission takes action under this section, the Commission is vested with all of the powers of the governing board as to the levy of taxes, expenditure of money, adoption of budgets and all other financial powers conferred upon the governing board by law,” said Dan Way, communications manager for the state Treasurer’s Office. The LGC is a division of the office.
The LGC placed Spring Lake in Cumberland County under its financial control a year ago, one of six units currently under LGC control. According to an article in the local newspaper The Pilot, the move forced the “temporary closure of Town Hall in mid-July (2021) while auditors examined records” in the town of 12,000.
Like Elizabeth City, Spring Lake entered into a Financial Accountability Agreement with the LGC before its finances were taken over.
“I think it is on their radar,” Peel said Thursday of an LGC takeover.
Rivers said details of Freeman’s contract, including salary, would be released after it is signed.
City Attorney William Morgan said that John Leidy, a local attorney who represents the city in personnel matters, will draw up a contract for Freeman. Morgan said if Freeman agrees to the city’s terms that the contract should be executed quickly.
Freeman was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation a month before he was terminated in Sept. 2021. The city never released the results of that investigation but Rivers said he is going to encourage City Council to release that information.
“I will take that to council for a vote,” Rivers said. “I will be pushing that to be released but it will be a council vote.”
As part of his severance agreement with the city, Freeman was paid $70,000 — essentially half his $140,000 salary.
Messages left on a personal cell number used by The Daily Advance to contact Freeman when he was city manager were not returned.