Elizabeth City City Council Defied State Treasurer’s Office In Rehiring Freeman

Elizabeth City City Council defied state Treasurer’s Office in rehiring Freeman
By Paul Nielsen The Daily Advance Staff Writer Dec 29, 2022

A majority of City Council defied the wishes of North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell when it voted in October to rehire Montre Freeman as city manager, a move that came year after Freeman was fired from the same job.

Mayor Kirk Rivers broke a 4-4 tie vote to offer the city’s vacant manager’s job to Freeman 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.

In an email to City Council before the vote, 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 in Sept. 2021.

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. The city is still trying to complete two past due audits for the fiscal years 2020-21 and 2021-22.

In her October email, Edmundson laid the blame for the late 2020-21 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.”

Days after Freeman was rehired, Folwell told The Daily Advance that he was surprised when he learned Freeman was rehired and that the state’s recommendation was ignored. He also said in October that going forward that the city has “no room for error” in managing its finances.

“We send out a lot of emails but we were adamant about this one,” Folwell said.

City Council voted 4-2 in September 2021 to terminate Freeman without cause after just eight months on the job.

The issue of rehiring Freeman surfaced shortly after the current City Council took office this past summer and picked up speed when the city advertised the position weeks later.

All four councilors who voted to terminate Freeman — Jeannie Young, Billy Caudle, Chris Ruffieux and Michael Brooks — did not return to their seats on City Council. Young lost her bid for mayor while Ruffieux and Brooks lost re-election bids last month. Caudle did not seek re-election.

Councilors Walton and Spence, who voted against terminating Freeman, were the only councilors to win re-election. Councilor Darius Horton, who also did not seek re-election, was absent from the vote to terminate Freeman. Gabriel Adkins, who had held the city’s other 2nd Ward seat, resigned before the vote to fire Horton.

After the vote to rehire Freeman two councilors who opposed the move — Biggs and Peel — said the search process was flawed and that Freeman was the choice of council’s majority from the start.

But two councilors — Felton and Gibbs — who voted with the majority defended City Council’s decision to bring Freeman back, saying that Freeman’s selection was not predetermined.

Peel, a former mayor, said at the time that Freeman’s selection was predetermined from the start and called the search process a waste of time. He also took the LGC’s email opposing Freeman’s rehiring as a warning that the state could take over control of the city’s finances if Freeman was rehired.

“It was obvious to any reasonable person,” Peel said of the push to bring Freeman back. “They knew they had the votes and there was no sense in wasting people’s time (with the search).’’

Biggs said in October that he believes those that voted in favor of Freeman ignored the email from the LGC, along with other facts.

“I feel that there were campaign promises to bring back Mr. Freeman that many felt they had to keep, even after learning all the facts,” Biggs said.

Felton said at the time she took the email from the LGC into consideration before voting for Freeman.

“I also took into account the fact that the budgetary problems that the LGC mentioned were not caused by Mr. Freeman,” Felton said. “They occurred years before Mr. Freeman was hired in 2021.”

Gibbs also said at the time he had no knowledge of Freeman being favored from the beginning of the search and that he took the LGC letter into account when he made his decision. He also said his decision to support Freeman came after the finalists were interviewed.

“I felt with our agreement with the LGC to provide in person, hands on support would suffice to address any issues that they had with Mr. Freeman’s hiring,” Gibbs said referring to a financial accountability agreement between the city and the state. “I also believe that the current financial crisis that our city is facing started prior to Mr. Freeman’s previous time as the city manager.”