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Posted: November 2, 2013 7:51 p.m.

Questionable spending in Mansfield?

Mayor grilled over money issues

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Larry Cummins

Some Mansfield residents are calling for the resignation of Mayor Estona Middlebrooks, and at least two Mansfield city council members say they’ve lost trust in her after finding questionable financial transactions. The mayor admits that she’s made "rookie mistakes," saying she has paid back money and that she’s willing to further rectify the situation if needed.

Some council members are questioning charges the mayor made with her city-issued debit card – which the council voted to cancel – as well as a lack of recordkeeping. The issue that has those council members and residents up in arms, however, is the city paying the mayor’s three-months-late utility bill without full council approval as a way to make up for wages Middlebrooks lost from her fulltime flight attendant’s position when she helped in cleanup efforts after April’s tornado.

The topics have dominated recent council meetings, with council members Lisa Dunn, who discovered the utility bill payment, and Marty Smallwood repeatedly questioning the mayor as they continue to look into old records.

Middlebrooks repaid the utility bill and said she’s willing to cover other costs and is willing to participate in an audit or

investigation into records, both of which have been discussed, but insists she never meant to break the law.

"There’s been nothing underminded, underhanded or illegal in any way," Middlebrooks said in an initial September interview with The News. "If any mistakes were made, they were rookie mistakes and have been rectified."

However, in October meetings, Smallwood dismissed the idea of "rookie" mistakes, saying Middlebrooks has been in office for two years, and Dunn said these questions would never have been raised if she hadn’t stumbled across them while assisting city personnel with new financial software the city purchased.

The issues have apparently spilled over into Tuesday’s election, as Dunn is being opposed by fellow council member Larry Cummins, who switched seats to run against Dunn. The city has no separate districts; all members represent the entire city.

Cummins has supported the mayor, and was the one who authorized paying the mayor’s utility bill – the council had discussed possible reimbursement for the mayor, but never voted on the issue.

Cummins told The News Thursday he would not be doing any interviews prior to the election, saying he and Dunn had both decided they wouldn’t speak to the media at this point.

 Mayor’s utility bill

Mayor Middlebrooks did not pay her city utility bill for February, March and April of this year, and was 1,046.20 past due at that point.

On April 20, a tornado ripped through Mansfield, destroying a handful of homes and damaging others.

Middlebrooks was among those who spent time assisting victims in the aftermath.

During an executive session discussion at May 13’s meeting, the council discussed  the fact Middlebrooks had lost about $2,700 of wages as a flight attendant by staying to help after the tornado. The council discussed the issue, but never reached a consensus.

However, according to the city’s utility billing system, Middlebrooks’ overdue bill of $1,046.20 was credited back to her account on May 9, four days before the issue was raised at the council meeting.

"In that (May 13) meeting, it wasn’t brought up that she was three months behind," Councilman Smallwood said in a September interview with The News.

As for why the reimbursement was made, City Clerk Jamie Ruark told The News in September that the reimbursement was made because she couldn’t remember if the council had reached a final decision and she asked Councilman Cummins, who is also the mayor pro tem, what had been decided. Ruark said Cummins told her to reimburse the utility bill payment.

Middlebrooks paid $1,046.20 to the city, which was deposited into the city’s account on Sept. 13, according to the city’s bank receipt.

"There’s nothing behind the scenes. If it was dishonest, why did I pay it back?" Middlebrooks said.

Residents have been particularly irked by the utility bill issue because the mayor’s power was never cut off; the city has a 60-day cutoff policy, according to city employees. While some residents said they had their power cut off, Middlebrooks did not.

At the June 27 meeting, Middlebrooks asked the council to raise her salary from $100 to $500 per month, according to Dunn, who also said Middlebrooks was asked if she had ever been compensated by the city for things outside of her regular pay. Dunn said Middlebrooks said no.

"That’s the big elephant in the room," Dunn said at the most recent meeting Oct. 14, referring to the utility bill situation.

"Mistakes were made. Rookie mistakes were made. We have policies now and we will follow them to a ‘t,’" Middlebrooks said at the Oct. 14 meeting.

"The first thing out of my mouth (when I discovered it) was how unethical it was," Dunn replied. "I don’t think we can write it off to a rookie mistake."

At the Oct. 3 meeting, Smallwood asked – on behalf of a resident, he said – whether the mayor had been charged late fees.

City Clerk Ruark said no residents were charged late fees during the first seven months of 2013 because the city was transitioning to a software-based financial system, which had not yet been programmed to automatically charge late fees. The council didn’t reach any consensus, though there were some disagreements.

Cummins asked whether a resident had really asked Smallwood to ask that question.

"Yes … people are upset, Mr. Larry. Can’t you see that?" Smallwood asked.

"No, I can’t," Cummins responded.

The council did not make any decision about whether to charge late fees, though Middlebrooks said she was willing to pay them.

"I’ll be glad to pay them," she said. "I have no problem with that."

However, Councilwoman Helen Robertson said it wouldn’t be fair to charge only the mayor, and the city would have to treat everyone equally.

"Not everyone is the mayor," Dunn said. "It’s a privilege to be the mayor. I feel at times, (she’s) mismanaged that privilege to be in that position."

 Debit card expenses/reimbursements

Another issue raised by Dunn and Smallwood has been the lack of receipts for purchases made by Middlebrooks using both the city’s debit card and her own personal credit card.

From June 4, 2012, to July 25, 2013, a total of $5,150.87 was charged to the city of Mansfield debit card used by Middlebrooks. While many receipts weren’t initially available, Middlebrooks has provided most of them to the city, and Dunn said at the Oct. 14 meeting that most expenses looked fine.

One questionable expense was the mayor paying her personal cell phone bill of $228.85 with the city’s debit card. However, she said that was an error because her card and the city’s debit card looked similar, as they were both silver and blue; she showed both to The News and they did look similar. She and Ruark also showed The News the cash she had paid back for the bill in the city’s vault. The city has not yet deposited the money. Smallwood said at the Oct. 14 meeting that the lack of a paper trail leaves him concerned.

Another issue Smallwood raised was $25 for gasoline charged to the city credit card near the airport, where Middlebrooks works as a flight attendant. Middlebrooks said she was making up for previously unreimbursed miles for a trip to Atlanta, but Smallwood said mileage costs are reimbursed and shouldn’t be made up months later through a direct debit card transaction.

Dunn and Smallwood said part of the problem is a lack of consistency in reporting.

Sometimes mileage was used for reimbursement and sometimes gas was put into the car using the city’s debit card.

The city has also not been following its new travel policy, which requires two council members to approve travel; the council is considering changing the policy to require full council approval.

Dunn has also questioned other expenses, including a trip to a MEAG’s annual conference in Amelia Island – the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia is the nonprofit cooperative from which Mansfield buys the electricity it then sells to its customers.

Middlebrooks was reimbursed for 780 miles worth of driving round trip, but Dunn said at the Oct. 14 meeting that the maximum distance on MapQuest is 666 miles round trip. Google Maps shows the same maximum distance. At 55 cents per mile, the difference of 114 miles is $62.70.

On the same trip, Smallwood questioned her food costs. Middlebrooks said she claimed the maximum amount allowed, but Smallwood said that’s not a proper way to do that. He said only actual costs should be reimbursed.

At multiple times during exchanges during the past few meeting, officials have ended conversations before reaching conclusions. Middlebrooks has said she is trying her best to explain expenses and provide documents, but Smallwood and Dunn haven’t been satisfied by answers, generally saying the explanations are inconsistent.

"It does seem so small, like $20 here, $30 here, maybe a hundred here, a thousand, but when you sweep it all up you get a little pile and that’s all we’re trying to do right now is find out what’s going on," Dunn said Oct. 3.

Dunn has pointed numerous times that none of this would have come to light if she hadn’t discovered parts of it and asked for the documents.

"I trusted your leadership and Jamie’s and if there was something of significance I felt you guys would have brought it to us; Jamie would have. I thought that until the power bill thing came up, and that’s what really threw all of this into question," Dunn said Oct. 3, noting Ruark never brought up the issue of the mayor being behind on her power bill. "It does cast a doubt and it does make everybody wonder."

"I understand that, I really understand that," Middlebrooks said.

At the Oct. 3 meeting, the council discussed a possible audit to follow all of the paper trails, but Smallwood was hesitant because it would cost the city even more money. He asked if a law enforcement investigation was a possibility – as that presumably would be free. City Attorney Lee Carmon recommended an audit, but said, based on her limited review of the issues, she didn’t know if they rose to the level of a law enforcement investigation. She didn’t know how much an audit would cost.

"If the audit comes in and shows some serious problems, then that’s an entirely different issue. That’s not a determination I

Bookkeeping getting in order

One of the most drawn-out issues doesn’t directly involve the mayor, but has to do with the city’s drawn-out conversion from a paper financial bookkeeping and billing system to a software system called Black Mountain.

During the transition, which has lasted all of 2013, the council hasn’t received any financial reports and doesn’t know how the city’s accounts are being changed on a monthly basis. Dunn and Smallwood said in a September interview the implementation has continually been delayed.

Black Mountain representatives and city employee have apparently been placing blame on each other, with Black Mountain saying the city didn’t provide all the information needed and didn’t have enough financial background to understand the system, while Ruark has said the system requires a lot of information that is not quick to upload.

Dunn has been working with both parties and said in an email more progress was made this week and she’s "excited about how good the system will be once in full accounting mode." She hopes the city will finally be able to start creating monthly financial statements – including general profit and loss statements – by December or January.

The slow financial transition has led to disagreements over simple purchases like replacing a broken lawn mower and more significant issues like how the city will be able to fund future payments for the expansion at nuclear Plant Vogtle, which Mansfield owns a share in through MEAG.

Questions have also been raised about what kind of training the city clerk needs or if another employee needs to be hired. Ruark is a banker by trade, and admits she’s not an accountant.

 Moving forward

"I don’t like way things have been going; we have to be careful how we present things," said longtime Councilwoman Lyra Cocchi at Oct. 14’s meeting, following the conversation about the utility bill issue.

"Not knowing anything about the city much, and coming in with a new mayor, without having any training or anything, I think she’s done a good job even though she has made mistakes," Councilwoman Robertson said. "We’ve all make mistakes. If anybody says they’ve never made a mistake, they’ll lie about anything."

Dunn asked the people in attendance Oct. 14 to tell her what they wanted the council to do about the issues that have been raised.

"What do we do? Do we just wipe the slate clean and say, ‘Oh, she made a whole lot of rookie mistakes,’ and just smack her on the hand?" Dunn asked Oct. 14.

When asked in an email, Dunn said this week that the majority of citizens who contacted Dunn have said they want the mayor to step down; some citizens also think she should pay for any expenses for which there are no receipts or  any that didn’t receive appropriate council approval.

Dunn has repeatedly said it comes back to trust.

"…If you can’t be trusted with small things, how can you be trusted with big things?" she said Oct. 14. "We’ve got some big stuff coming up and we need a leader. And that’s what we were looking to you for, Estona."

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