High Point councilman wanted more aggressive investigation of manager

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Douglas
Douglas

A High Point City Council member blasted his colleagues in an email on Monday for what he characterized as indecision and lack of courage in addressing allegations of financial impropriety by the former city manager, who retired the same day after 16 years on the job.

Councilman Foster Douglas, who represents Ward 2, said in the email that he participated in a conference call with Mayor Bernita Sims, City Attorney JoAnne Carlyle, and David Woodward, a lawyer retained by the city from the Raleigh law firm Poyner Spruill.

“After the meeting with the attorney he advised the mayor that at that time they had the authority and justifiable cause to put the city manager on administrative leave,” Douglas wrote. “Have him turn in his credit card, and not allow him to enter back into his office, until further investigations had been done. Because of what had been uncovered in the early stages of his credit card audit.

“Mayor after you polled city council for support and had the votes to move with the attorney’s recommendations, you failed to do so,” Douglas continued. “Question (who and what is being protected) and why? This attorney was called upon to advise city council on not just what to do, but how to move forward in doing it. Again, mayor, yourself and some on city council chose to waste taxpayers’ money on professional advice we don’t even us. Because some do not have the moral courage to even do what is right for the citizens of High Point.”

Sims could not be reached for comment on Douglas’ email this evening. Currently in her first term as mayor, Sims said recently that she is close to a decision as to whether she will run for reelection. Filing opens on July 7.

Douglas charged that Sims’ decision not to pursue a forensic investigation makes it more difficult to uncover the truth “now that the manager has sent out an email stating that he had reimbursed the city $898.90 for his personal charges and that he has canceled and closed the account of the city-issued American Express card account.”

Boynton acknowledged in an interview that he reimbursed the city for expenses incurred on a city-issued American Express card and closed the account on June 27 due to his retirement. But he said the expenditures for a hotel room and rental car to attend an American Public Power Association meeting as a representative of the city were business related rather than personal. He said he was reimbursed by Electricities, a public power membership organization to which High Point belongs, and that in turn he then reimbursed the city.

“There’s no food, there’s no alcohol or any of that stuff,” he said. “Those I pay for myself.”

Douglas also alleges in the email that Boynton withheld receipts for his travel expenses from the city’s finance department.

“In the early auditing stages of the city manager’s American Express city-issued card we were informed by the auditors of some disturbing occurrences that was troubling to say the lease as it relates to the usage and bill paying of the city manager’s city-issued American Express credit card,” Douglas wrote. “It was found that the city manager kept all credit card receipts for his city-issued credit card locked up in his office and not kept down in finance with all the other city-issued [procurement] card receipts that had to be paid by the finance director Jeff Moore. According to Jeff Moore for the past 10 years he has not seen the manager’s credit card receipts, the manager would call down to him and tell him how much to pay on the American Express credit card, and he would just do it.”

Boynton said Douglas’ assertion is false.

“All business expenses are reviewed by Jeff Moore and approved by Jeff Moore,” he said. “And for Foster to imply otherwise is libelous and slanderous. And dumb.”

Douglas could not be reached for comment.

Douglas’ email paints a picture of a council that was deeply unhappy with Boynton’s performance as city manager, contrary to a retirement agreement reached between the manager and council in April that celebrated his achievements. In Douglas’ telling, Boynton was forced out, with Mayor Sims asking him after a January 2014 employee review when he planned to retire.

“His first response as I recall was January 2015,” Douglas said. “The mayor said she told the manager that was unacceptable to council and that he had to pick a date certain on or before July 1, 2014. With a previous attempt to fire the manager that failed by one voted. And that change of vote was to allow him to retire since he had been manager for almost 16 years.”

Boynton again contested Douglas’ account.

“My retirement letter, which they all accepted, states that I had planned to retire in January 2014, but they asked me to stay on,” Boynton said. “I stayed on for three reasons. I stayed on to secure our AAA bond rating. I stayed on to work with Robin Team to allow Polo Ralph Lauren to open their facility on I-74. I stayed on to close the deal on closing Montlieu Avenue so High Point University could expand their pharmacy school. We approved the closure of Montlieu Avenue in February. We secured the bond rating in early April. Council approved the deal for I-74 on April 21. I announced my retirement on April 23.”

As an example of financial irregularities under Boynton’s watch, Douglas wrote that council discovered that employees were using procurement cards for food purchases and improperly coding the transactions as “supplies.”

“Improper coding means unrealistic and inflated department budgeting,” Douglas wrote. “There was plenty of evidence in my opinion of credit card fraud, misuse and abuse. Even the policies that were in place were not being followed. So, in other words, it was just a spend-as-you-see-fit type of system with no safeguards in place to monitor spending.”

Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall, who represents Ward 3, acknowledged the finding in an interview this evening.

“That was something that was brought to light and was changed,” she said, while declining to comment on Boynton’s use of the city-issued American Express card because of personnel privacy considerations.

Internal emails obtained by Triad City Beat suggest a climate of increasing paranoia surrounding the High Point Municipal Building over the past six months.

In a February 12 email to Ward 4 Councilman Jay Wagner, City Project Executive Director Wendy Fuscoe and fellow City Project board members Richard Wood and David Covington, Aaron Clinard wrote, “We need to be very protective of Strib and what he tells us… he thinks council may be after him and Wendy (a hidden agenda).”

Meanwhile, around the time of Feb. 14, Douglas noted that Human Relations Director Al Heggins filed a grievance against Boynton. Douglas said he suggested to fellow council members that Boynton be placed on administrative leave while the grievance was investigated. The suggestion “was met by strong opposition by some on council.” The grievance was eventually resolved with no disciplinary action.

While council has investigated the city manager, who is their employee, through an outside law firm, the city manager has also used his staff to investigate council, according to Douglas.

“I’m sure some of [my] colleagues remember — at least those that want to remember — that in a finance meeting where the city manager said he had Jeff Moore to investigate city council,” Douglas wrote. “That was around the time when he was releasing information to the press. I have since researched and found out that the tax information he was releasing was illegal because of how it was obtained. The only way he could have acquired some of this information was to use Social Security numbers to get it. I don’t know about the rest of council but I never signed any documents authorizing the usage of my Social Security number.”

Boynton declined to comment on specifics of Douglas’ email other than the use of his city-issued American Express card. At-large Councilwoman Becky Smothers and Ward 4 Councilman Jay Wagner also declined to comment.

Douglas’ email also alludes to a dispute between himself and the city over legal fees he has been ordered to pay the city after a suit he filed was dismissed, suggesting that the city manager allowed the matter to become personal.

“During a closed session the city attorney informed the city council that there was not anything further that could be done as it relates to recovering the monies I owed the city,” Douglas wrote. “City attorney said Councilman Douglas has filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy; he is now protected and that means that we can no longer go after his property. The mayor asked the question: When and in what meeting was the manager instructed to go after Councilman Douglas’ property? No one seemed to recall that meeting nor had an answer. I then shared with my colleagues information that they seem to have not been made aware of. I had made an attempt to settle with the city offering the city four thousand dollars cash and a thousand dollars a month until the debt was paid in full. I felt the manager withheld that information form council because he had made it personal. And at any cost to the taxpayers, his mission in my opinion was to try and destroy me and take my property. So I had to protect my property, and the way to do that was to file Chapter 13. Does not make good business sense employed by the manager to turn down a bird in the hand for two in the bushes.

“I recall [Councilman Jason Ewing] asking the manager the question: Did you not consider that Councilman Douglas had this option of filing Chapter 13 before you spent over twenty thousand dollars of taxpayers’ money to not recover anything?” the email continues. “That question was never answered. I recall Becky getting hot enough at me to chew nails. I could not figure out what angered her more. Was it because I used something that was a right for me to protect my property, or was the anger generated because they found out they are not the only ones with good sense? In my opinion she should have been upset with the manager for wasting over twenty thousand dollars of taxpayers’ money.”

  • Observer

    This whole convoluted mess can be summed up in the simple word “secrecy”.
    Council, at least the hard center that has really run things for years despite the changing cast of occasional musical chair electeds, has thrived on the use of tax monies here for decades and that usage has been hidden from open view by the public for good reason: the public would not agree.
    Our political no-primary system was designed to ensure the cementing of anchor power players and has largely worked as the system has become more solidly entrenched over time.
    Douglas owed a legal judgment to the city for years and had ample time to slowly work it off, but the core players were willing to let it quietly disappear as long as he didn’t make waves and the public was kept in the dark.
    Neither took place.
    Manager Boynton has not been called to task for doing council’s bidding in the secret spends that taxpayers had no knowledge of, for the most of it was with council’s quiet consent, if not at their direct command.
    What got rid of him was over zealous race politics for daring to question a department head about the use of tax money, as ironic as it all was.
    This town will publicly pick a publicly noticed sore and apply a band aid while concealing the fact that a much deeper disease is present causing the more obvious and less threatening externally seen maladies.
    As we change managers the public has asked for a timely full forensic audit of city finances and more openness of city usage of public funds, and have been answered with only silence.
    We have allowed too much pull to be applied by too few hands with way too many feeders at the public trough whom the public hardly knows at all, and those thirsty ones certainly can’t be voted out due to their non elected status.
    Better to keep their dealers safely in office, feeding the habit that the power players have developed.
    High Cost Point is the term applied by the average citizen here for a city with the most expensive combined cost of living in the state, yet one would think that the folks we elect in a supposedly fair system are struck dumb the minute their butts hit the seats in our council chambers.
    The national problem of spending tax money for things that the public can’t see or outright doesn’t agree with using borrowed funds to be repaid later with ever higher charges to the taxpayers is alive and well in our city, and so is the ability of our “leaders” to ignore those who see a bad end coming because of it.
    We’re about to see a new tide of filings for office here that will ensure carefully chosen bad choices to be selected from by the voters, and we will only be allowed to try to vote for the best of the bad to sift through, at least based on how very little we are allowed to see or to know about them to start with.
    Our problems aren’t monetary, for council sees no reason for us to see how it’s spent, and sees no end to the supply of it.
    Our problems aren’t racial, for the working and self supporting of all low to middle class citizens are being misled and heavily charged for the privilege.
    The top and the bottom of our city are doing fine on the city dime, and the rest dig ever deeper to supply them with it.
    It ain’t easy being a mushroom in the soon to be nicest city in the state, that nobody can afford to live in.