Council breaks silence

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 14, 2007

MURFREESBORO – The fabric that holds this town together is a most delicate one, figuratively and literally speaking.

And speaking publicly for the first time is the Murfreesboro Town Council who, after much criticism, is addressing the reasoning behind their decision to disband the Murfreesboro Beautification Committee (MBC).

In a related issue, council members also pointed out that Murfreesboro Mayor Lynn Johnson overstepped her authority by approving purchase orders. In this particular case, Johnson’s actions may have violated a state general statute, one that could lead to a fine and forfeiture of her office if convicted. However, the press release issued Thursday by the Murfreesboro Town Council stopped short of addressing that extreme.

At the center of this issue is a Jan. 24, 2006 decision made by town council in regards to indefinitely tabling a MBC request to spend $13,140 to purchase window treatments (curtains/drapes) and new chairs for the council’s chambers at the town’s municipal building. Despite that decision, invoices totaling just under $5,000 were approved in May and June of this year for the purchase of fabric and five window treatments.

“The Murfreesboro Town Council believes that the town’s Beautification Committee is an asset to the community,” read Thursday’s press release issued by Town Administrator Cathy Davison upon pre-approval by the town council as well as the town attorney. “However, they also believe that without proper oversight and guidance, the Beautification Committee overstepped its role and responsibilities as a recommending committee to the Town Council with the purchase of window treatments in the amount of $4,938.70.”

Administrative review prompts questions

Davison began her new duties in August of this year. Upon employment, she began a review of the town expenditures in advance of the annual audit of Murfreesboro’s financial records. During that review, Davison discovered two invoices and purchase orders for fabric and window treatments at town hall.

“In the further review of these items, it was found that the purchase orders were processed by the town’s former finance officer/town clerk and the mayor without approval of the town council,” read the press release. “In this discovery, it was the town administrator’s responsibility to turn this information over to town council.”

Upon request, the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald was provided copies of the invoices, from Southern Interiors, Inc. of Suffolk, Va., and purchase orders. The first was dated 5-21-07 in the amount of $1,900 for fabric. The second, dated 6-08-07, was for five window treatments totaling $3,038.70. Both carried the signatures of Stephanny Marshall, the town’s former finance officer/town clerk, as well as Lynn Johnson where her name was listed on the line reserved for the purchasing agent. Below Johnson’s signature, in identical handwriting, were the names of Molly Eubank as “Admin” (on the 5-21 purchase order) and David Overton as “Int. Admin” (6-08 purchase order).

Upon being contacted on Thursday by the News-Herald, Eubank, who retired earlier this year as Murfreesboro’s Town Administrator before earning a town council seat during November’s general election, said she had no prior knowledge of Johnson signing her name on the purchase order.

Overton, who served as interim town administrator prior to Davison arriving in August, was also reached by telephone. He said on the day of the purchase order being signed, he had a doctor’s appointment and thusly was out of the office. However, he said he was aware of the purchase order. He also said he was unaware of the council’s 2006 decision not to approve the window treatments.

According to Davison, town policy prohibits council members or the mayor from signing purchase orders. She said that duty was reserved for herself and department heads.

“The (town) code spells out who are the purchasing agents,” Davison said.

When asked if Johnson’s signatures on the purchase orders, especially Eubank’s name in light of her stating she had no knowledge that was being done, constituted any type of criminal activity, Davison said neither she nor the council had the authority to make that determination.

“The SBI (State Bureau of Investigation) would have to investigate any evidence of wrongdoing,” Davison noted.

According to NC General Statute 159-181, if any finance officer, governing board member or other officer or employee of any local government or public authority shall approve any claim or bill knowing it to be fraudulent, erroneous or otherwise invalid, they are guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor and, upon conviction, will be fined not more than $1,000, forfeit their office and will be personally liable for all damages in a civil action.

Council dissolves MBC

According to the press release, the Murfreesboro Town Council, upon review of the invoices, purchase orders and minutes from their Jan. 24, 2006 meeting, voted unanimously on Nov. 27, 2007 to dissolve the MBC until further notice in order to allow time for the town attorney and town administrator to discuss the information with experts from the School of Government and the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

The News-Herald also discovered on Thursday that in addition to Southern Interiors, Inc. there were two others to make bids on refurbishing council’s chambers. Contacted by telephone, a spokesperson with Swain’s Tile and Floor Covering of Ahoskie confirmed a bid was solicited for blinds and reupholstering existing chairs at the Murfreesboro Town Hall. Also, Mary Hobbs of the Murfreesboro-based Interiors by Mary Hobbs said she was also contacted about supplying a bid on window treatments, blinds and reupholstering existing chairs.

It was noted in Davison’s office that Geri Phillips Bradshaw of Southern Interiors Inc. is a member of the MBC, joining that volunteer group last month. No employee of Swain’s Tile and Floor Covering or Interiors by Mary Hobbs is listed as a MBC volunteer.

After a lengthy closed session during this past Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting, the Murfreesboro Town Council returned to open session. There, a motion was made to resolve the issue by paying for the window treatments from monies raised by prior beautification committees through the redemption of two Certificates of Deposit as well as raise the remaining funds from private sources.

Davison informed the News-Herald that the two CD’s total $4,289.17. That figure is $649.53 short of the money already paid by the town for the window treatments. The council members feel that the former MBC members should be responsible for soliciting the remainder of the money in order for all of the taxpayer’s monies spent on this unapproved project to be returned to the town’s coffers.

“This is an effort by the council to move forward for the good of the Town of Murfreesboro,” read the press release.

New policies forthcoming

Additionally, the town council directed Davison to draft a purchasing policy that would include all current town codes as well as incorporate the general purchasing practices of the Town of Murfreesboro and purchasing and procurement practices addressed in North Carolina General Statutes.

“Council strongly believes that with a formal purchasing policy and with the oversight of the town administrator, a purchase without the approval of town council will not occur in the future,” states the press release.

Davison was also directed by council members to draft guidelines for the town’s Beautification, Recreation and Economic Development committees in order for residents, committee members and town council to have a clear understanding of these committees.

“When these guidelines become available, council will accept member applications for the future reinstatement of the Beautification Committee,” the press release concluded.

When asked whatever became of the window treatments, Davison said they were in the town’s possession.

“However, since their existence was not approved by the board, those window treatments will not be installed,” she stated.

Davison said the window treatments will be returned to the Beautification Committee when and if that committee is reformed.

(Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald Staff Writer Amanda VanDerBroek contributed to this story.)