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Rocky Mount tries to pull back emails on councilman's unpaid utility bills

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ROCKY MOUNT — In a bizarre maneuver Thursday, city officials attempted to walk back their decision to release emails that identify a council member at the center of an unpaid utility bill scandal.

Mayor Pro-tem Andre Knight has nearly $50,000 in unpaid utility bills, a fact confirmed through the combination of information from a state audit report, records turned over to the this newspaper by a city employee and emails obtained Tuesday through a request under the N.C. Public Records Act. 

City attorney Jep Rose determined upon further review that the emails should not have been released, according to an unattributed statement the city of Rocky Mount released Thursday.

“It’s a moot point now,” Rose told this newspaper Thursday afternoon.

Amanda Martin, general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association, agrees.

“It’s too late,” Martin said. “The barn door’s been opened. You can’t put back the cow or horse or whatever metaphor we’re using.”

Rose determined the emails constitute public enterprise billing information and aren’t public records as provided by N.C. General Statute 132, according to the city’s statement.

Public enterprise billing information is defined by state law as any record or information in whatever form compiled or maintained with respect to individual customers.

Martin said there might be a case for a broad reading of the public enterprise billing rule, but she believes the emails are public record.

“This is so outside the ordinary,” Martin said. “If you asked me if you could go after those emails as public records, I would say yes, but you already have them anyway.”

The city’s unsigned statement defends Knight, stating, “Further, contrary to what is being reported, the email does not indicate that an account was delinquent, a collection needed to be made, an individual was receiving preferential treatment nor requesting prevention of collection of a bill. The email released asks the receiver to contact the individual regarding the account referenced.”

In the June 10, 2016, emails between then-City Manager Charles Penny and Finance Director Amy Staton, 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.” 

The subject line of the emails is “Council Member Knights Utilities.”

The emails released Tuesday state that Knight is to be left alone concerning his utility accounts for properties along Cherry, Greenfield and Cleo streets, which is what N.C. State Auditor Beth Wood determined to be preferential treatment.

City records obtained by this newspaper with Knight’s account number XXXXX25 indicate the $47,704 in write-offs he received are for services at 110 Braswell St. The services include electric, water, irrigation, wastewater, stormwater, refuse, natural gas and area lights. 

“Because multiple City officials over two decades did not follow the City’s policy, the Council Member accumulated $47,704 in uncollected utility bills. The City could have used those funds for operating costs for its public utilities. In addition, the Council Member continued to receive utility services without paying his fair share. Other City residents had to pay their bills timely to continue to receive services,” according to Wood’s report.

Knight’s cellphone went straight to voicemail when called Thursday. On Tuesday, Knight claimed his bills have been paid.

For the past several years, it’s been standard procedure for the council to receive advance notice of any release of information. Knight didn’t know the emails had been released Tuesday until being contacted by this newspaper.

Jessie Nunery, the city’s media relations specialist who released the emails Tuesday, likely couldn’t have done so without approval of a higher-ranking official and a nod from the city attorney.

Rose approved the release of six months of city emails to the press last year. His contract with the city has come under council scrutiny in recent weeks. 

Staton wrote off the $47,704 in outstanding utility bills in 2013 and 2017, under the tenure of two former city managers, Penny and Steve Raper. 

Penny didn’t answer calls to his cellphone. Raper couldn’t be reached in time for this story. 

Knight still owed $2,900 in unpaid bills as of January, according to the state audit report. Rochelle Small-Toney is the current city manager.