MONROE, N.C. -- A consultant’s report for the city of Monroe details a dysfunctional city hall riven with paranoia over secret tape recordings, nepotism by a meddling City Council and fear of council members who do not get their way.
While all municipalities have issues, the blistering report paints an unusually detailed portrait of Monroe’s problems.
• The report found “credible and objective evidence” that Police Chief Debra Duncan secretly recorded former City Manager Wayne Herron without his consent.
• Some employees are so convinced that City Hall is bugged that the report recommended the building be swept for listening devices.
• The report stated that “nepotism exists.” For instance, council member Dottie Nash’s husband, son, the son’s fiancée and an ex-girlfriend of the son were hired by the city. “City staff felt they had little choice in the decision to hire” the former girlfriend, the report stated.
The report by lawyers with Parker Poe Adams and Bernstein details a divided City Council with two factions who often ignore the manager to get their way. As one interviewee stated, nobody can handle the council, and “if Jesus himself wanted to be the City Manager of Monroe, he would have been fired in 6 months.”
The report was released this week. The council had commissioned it to learn why Monroe has trouble keeping city managers. Herron quit last July and Monroe is looking to hire its fourth manager in 12 years.
The council’s actions have impacted Monroe’s ability to operate effectively, the report concluded. The 29-page document was redacted to hide names of staff, council members and others interviewed for it.
Tuesday night, the council adopted a resolution prohibiting the council, city manager or staff from retaliating against anyone who participated in the report. The vote was 4-3. Nash voted against it, and said that in the current climate, “if you look at somebody wrong, you could offend them.”
On Wednesday, council members Nash and Billy Jordan claimed the report was biased because of the involvement of its lead attorney, Anthony Fox.
Nash said Fox has ties to some council members: He has long worked as attorney for the city’s Board of Adjustment, whose chair is the brother of council member Margaret Desio, and is “golf buddies” with council member Lynn Keziah.
Nash called the report one-sided, and a way to discredit Duncan and Mayor Bobby Kilgore at a cost of up to $50,000 to the taxpayers.
Fox denied bias. He noted there were two other attorneys who also worked on the report, and that both factions of council were criticized. The report’s issues did not surprise city spokesman Pete Hovanec. “An outsider looking at this would go, ‘Oh my God.’ But it is something as city employees we’ve dealt with for years,” he said. “Whether the (concerns) are true or not, employees believe them.”
He and interim City Manager Greg Demko hope the report can be used as a way to move forward and rebuild trust.
For the first time publicly, the report detailed what it described as a secret recording of Herron by Duncan, the police chief.
The former city manager quit after council members had strong closed-door debate over his decision not to give Duncan a performance bonus.
Meanwhile, an anonymous call by a woman threatening the chief was traced to Herron’s home.
Duncan’s conduct does not appear to violate police policy against recording another member of the force without their knowledge because Herron is not an officer, the report said.
But in an apparent reference to the recording, the report stated it may bring the agency into “disrepute or ridicule and may impair the performance of official duties and obligations” of city employees, and “may constitute unbecoming conduct of a police officer.”
In an email statement, Duncan denied any wrongdoing. “My reputation has been built on honesty and my employees are aware of the consequences of being untruthful. I hold myself to that same standard.
“I did nothing illegal, unethical or against policy. My actions were undertaken with the knowledge of the majority of city council members.” She declined further comment.
Herron could not be reached for comment.
Nash had previously said she recorded a conversation with Herron without his knowledge because she thought other members would not believe their conversation. The recording “created an environment of distrust, suspicion, fear and paranoia,” the report found.
Hiring issues, fear and intimidation
Hiring family and close associates of council members impacts the quality of people the city hires, the report found. Nash, Kilgore and Keziah have influenced personnel decisions regarding hiring and discipline, the report said.
The day after Herron left, Nash’s son was promoted to detective in the police department, a move that did not come with a pay hike, Hovanec said.
Nash said she never interfered to get relatives or friends hired, and that the report did not detail hiring on behalf of other council members.
The report did note Keziah’s son once worked for the police. Keziah said nepotism was not involved, and an interviewee agreed with that assessment.
Kilgore could not be reached for comment.
Interviewees also cited council members whom they feared.
The report said Nash created an environment “where there is a strong fear of retaliation and distrust by staff.” And it said Keziah “has a demanding style which has created fear among some staff.”
“I’ve never been anything but nice to staff,” Nash said. She was surprised to hear staff feared her. “When I looked at the report, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m the spawn of Satan.’?”
Keziah said, “I don’t know of anyone I’ve intimidated.”
Monroe, Union County’s county seat, has a population of about 33,000. Under its council-manager form of government, the manager is appointed by the council and is the city’s top administrator.
About 420 people work for the city, including about 50 in City Hall.
The report found that few on council understood or respected the council-manager form of government while few city managers have been willing to say no to council for fear they could lose their jobs
The report made 11 recommendations, including: City Council should develop a code of conduct governing their interactions with the next manager and staff; an anti-nepotism policy should be implemented; and the council should consider a no-tape-recording policy.
Meanwhile, the city will work with a search firm to find its next manager
Nash says the city needs a manager willing to stand up to city council. “Nobody wants to come into this political mess” now, she said.