Folwell: ‘No Room For Error’ In Elizabeth City’s Fiscal Management After Freeman Hiring

Folwell: ‘No room for error’ in city’s fiscal management after Freeman hiring
By Paul Nielsen, The Daily Advance Staff Writer Oct 13, 2022

Elizabeth City could be one step away from the state’s Local Government Commission taking control of the city’s finances after City Council rehired Montre Freeman as city manager, State Treasurer Dale Folwell said Thursday.

In a split vote Wednesday night, City Council rehired Freeman to a position he was fired from a year ago, and just hours after the LGC told city leaders in an email it was “strongly opposed” to the move.

The city has been on the LGC’s Unit Watch List for two years and its email to city leaders blamed some of the city’s financial problems on Freeman. It was also critical of Freeman’s handling of finances as manager for the town of Enfield, a position he held before becoming the city’s manager in January 2021.

Folwell said he was surprised when he learned Freeman was rehired and that the state’s recommendation was ignored.

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

Mayor Kirk Rivers broke a 4-4 tie in joining city councilors Johnnie Walton, Kem Spence, Javis Gibbs and Katherine Felton who voted to hire Freeman. Councilors Johnson Biggs, Joe Peel, Rose Whitehurst and Barbara Baxter opposed Freeman’s hiring.

Folwell said going forward that the city has “no room for error” in managing its finances.

“Let me be clear, this is never about a person, it is about personnel,” Folwell said. “I don’t know this individual (Freeman) but I know everything has to be perfect going forward. That has to do with transparency, this has to do with governance and that has to do with confidence.”

Rivers said the city’s goal going forward is to get the city’s finances in order and believes Freeman can move the city in that direction.

“At the end of the day, we want to get the budget right,” Rivers said. “We want to set a track record of fiscal responsibility. That is what we are working on right now.”

When asked if the LGC had no faith in Freeman’s ability to manage the city’s finances, Folwell referenced the previous council’s decision to fire Freeman after just nine months on the job.

“Evidently, Elizabeth City didn’t have much faith in Mr. Freeman,” Folwell said of the city firing Freeman on Sept. 30, 2021. “What we need is to have city councils to hire people that create a culture of conservatism, which means to conserve, and confidence.”

In the email to City Council, the LGC said while at Enfield Freeman “struggled” with budgetary control and accurate budget preparation in a town with a much smaller budget than Elizabeth City’s.

The city has still not filed its 2020-21 audit that was due almost a year ago on Oct. 31, 2021. And it will miss the deadline to submit its 2021-22 audit because the previous year’s audit has not been finished. The LGC’s email said it was Freeman’s responsibility to ensure the city’s timely completion of the 2020-21 audit.

Folwell is concerned that Freeman will be unable to understand how a budget the size of Elizabeth City’s needs to be developed and “how to live within it.”

“I always think about what my former neighbor in Winston-Salem used to say,” Folwell said. “When a situation or person shows you who they are the first time you should believe them. That was Maya Angelou.”

The city and the LGC entered into a Financial Accountability Agreement two weeks ago in an effort to get Elizabeth City off the watch list.

Folwell described the FAA as “tight and strict” and said that a takeover of the city’s finances is something the LGC does not “desire.”

“We would rather be the Maytag repair people where nothing was broken,” he said.