IT council cans forensic audit plan

Jul. 11, 2013 @ 04:38 PM

An argument over doing a forensic audit on seven years of Indian Trail’s finances ended with a vote to boost the town manager’s severance pay.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman David Waddell moved to begin planning a forensic audit of all town finances since 2006. He said it would “do wonders” for gaining the public trust. It would also answer lingering questions about some moves the town made in recent years.

Several things made the public question the “culture” in town hall, Waddell said, like extending Stone Theater’s opening date without council approval, spending town money to improve a state-owned intersection because of the theater, the legitimacy of the N.C. Rural Economic Development grant to build the theater and a “secret email account” created to monitor town council that was still active in 2010. He questioned the legality of the town’s aid to Carolina Courts, “promoting” the park bonds in the town  and adding a tax increase to last year’s budget after the public hearing.

“While these examples may not totally be within the scope of a forensic audit, they are indicators of a culture within town hall that the people need to be assured that has not affected the handling of public funds,” Waddell said.

The audit would look for problems and suggest solutions the town can take, he said. It would also suggest policies to put in place to avoid future decisions that appear questionable.

But Waddell’s proposal touched a nerve with Town Manager Joe Fivas, who said Waddell refused his offers to examine town documents for evidence of impropriety.

“You’re talking about wanting policy but you want to do a forensic audit,” Fivas said. “I don’t understand the connect between the policies and the forensic audit.”

The council debated justifying the expense of a forensic audit when regular audits are performed and none have found problems. Waddell insisted that problems exist and once again said there is a certain culture within town hall.

“I think I have an ethical obligation to speak for our staff, that we are tremendously offended by these allegations,” Fivas said.

By criticizing the “culture” and by continually suggesting wrongdoing, Fivas said Waddell discredits every town employee. Despite being a difficult place to work, Fivas said his staff are dedicated workers. They have done nothing wrong and it is unfair to continually accuse them of deceit, Fivas said.

Waddell denied he was implicating specific employees. He again insisted there were issues in the town’s past that caused the town residents to question the staff’s integrity.

“Name them,” Fivas shouted.

Waddell replied that the town has not released closed session minutes from 2006 and 2007 to the public.

“And that’s a council decision, correct?” Fivas said.

Waddell maintained that “something doesn’t look right.”

“I don’t know how much more transparent we can be when we say come in an look at all the documents,” Fivas said.

Councilwoman Darlene Luther asked Waddell: “They just want to keep digging and digging and digging and digging and I just don’t understand what they’re looking for,” Luther said.

No matter how much information the town releases, rumors of corruption and wrongdoing will persist among a certain group of residents, Luther said. To date no hard evidence has been found, she said, but it does not stop the rumors and information requests.

“They want Indian Trail to be corrupt,” Luther said.

Councilman Robert Allen said he did not see the connect between town council actions and policies from 2006 and current spending. By focusing on these issues, the town is forced to look behind and not ahead.

“You affect change by being proactive and creating things,” Allen said. “But you’d rather spend more time on this, a witch hunt, than this year’s budget.”

Cohn said he does not believe there is corruption on the council or in town hall, but there might have been years ago. He said he worried about the “backlash” from residents if the council turned down a forensic audit. He said he and the other council members would be accused of hiding something.

“And that bothers me. I think everybody up here and those who work for the town do it for the good of the town,” Cohn said. “We may not see eye-to-eye, we may not think the same way. you may think a park’s a bad thing, I might think a park’s a good thing. You might say Carolina Courts is a bad thing and I think Carolina Courts is a good thing. But there’s no corruption here. There’s absolutely none.”

Waddell made the motion to instruct the town staff to begin planning a forensic audit. It failed by a 4-1 vote.

The last order of business was closed session. When the council returned, Allen moved to extend Fivas’s severance agreement from 9 months to 16 months. It passed by unanimous vote.