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ROCKY MOUNT — The identity of a city council member who has nearly $50,000 in unpaid utility bills has been confirmed through public records requests.
Mayor Pro-tem Andre Knight received preferential treatment concerning unpaid utility bills, according to a report released in mid-May by N.C. State Auditor Beth Wood.
The report doesn’t name Knight, but this newspaper obtained an email from Rocky Mount city officials under the N.C. Public Records Act that identifies him. The email is referenced in the state auditor’s report, but the reference to Knight is redacted and replaced with the term “council member.”
In two phone conversations Tuesday, Knight maintained his bills have been paid.
“You need to stop fishing, Lindell,” Knight said. “You need to stop lying.”
On Tuesday, the city released three emails from June 10, 2016, between then-City Manager Charles Penny and Finance Director Amy Staton. In the email exchange with the subject line “Council Member Knights Utilities,” Penny tells 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.”
Penny tells Staton in an immediate follow-up email that the utility accounts are for Cherry, Greenfield and Cleo streets.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Knight said. “I’ve never seen that. You need to call Charles Penny.”
Penny didn’t immediately answer calls to his cellphone.
After viewing a screenshot of the emails, Knight called to say his utility bills at those addresses have always been current.
“Ask them why they said not to contact me,” Knight said. “Ask them why more than 50 people had access to my utility accounts.”
In an interview with WTVD ABC-11 that aired May 22, Knight denied the allegations in the report and said he’s never received preferential treatment.
“In the audit, my name is not mentioned,” Knight said. “In the audit, there is no criminal activity, and I plan to serve my constituents.”
In the days after the report’s release, Wood promised to reveal the council member’s identity, but that never happened. Further, the Office of State Auditor refused to release any information about the audit outside what’s listed in the report. Citing N.C. General Statute 147, Dion Clark, Wood’s public information officer, said documents related to the report were confidential and protected from disclosure.
The city email provides concrete proof of Knight’s identity as the council member named in the state audit report for utility bill write-offs. The lack of direct confirmation in the report has allowed Knight to insist he’s not the council member in question.
“According to Finding 1, multiple city officials prevented the Business Services Center from attempting to collect $47,704 in utility bills owed by a city council member,” Jessie Nunery, the city’s media relations specialist, explained in a statement to the press released the day before the state made the audit report public.
Staton wrote off $47,704 in outstanding utility bills in 2013 and 2017, under the tenure of two former city managers. Knight still owed $2,900 in unpaid bills as of January, according to the report. Rochelle Small-Toney is the current city manager.
During the same time period, several business and residential accounts were also written off. Staff also provided information on more than 30 accounts with delinquent balances with continuing active service. A spreadsheet provided by the city shows an average of $1 million in utility bill write-offs every year since 2003.
The city press release states other customer accounts were managed in a similar manner without being investigated.