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Posted: March 6, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Mansfield Mayor Middlebrooks resigns

Mansfield Mayor Estona Middlebrooks resigned from her position Thursday afternoon, citing a lack of time to devote to the position, though she had also faced questioning and criticism for months from council members and residents about spending of city funds.

Middlebrooks turned in her resignation letter to the city around 5 p.m. Thursday, said Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Riley, who read the letter at the city’s 7 p.m. work session.

In her letter, Middlebrooks cited a lack of time due to her growing business, her job as a flight attendant and spending time with family as the reasons for her resignation.

No other information about her resignation was presented during the meeting; however, Middlebrooks came under fire last spring for questionable spending of city funds and record keeping and seeking inappropriate monetary reimbursements.

In a Friday email, Riley said he and other council members had notified Middlebrooks last week they would either pursue an internal investigation or turn the matter over to a Superior Court judge, which Riley said is the process laid out in the city’s charter.

"She said she was already considering such action, that this may not be necessary and asked us to give her until Monday at the council meeting. The council agreed," Riley said in an email.

As mayor pro tem, Riley will serve as mayor until the seat can be filled by a special election as required by the city’s charter. Middlebrooks was elected in November 2011 and would not have been up for reelection until 2015.

"…After much consideration and thought, I am resigning my position as mayor of the city of Mansfield, effective at 5 p.m. on Thursday," Middlebrooks wrote in her letter. "I no longer have the time necessary to devote to this position due to the fact our business is growing by leaps and bounds and it requires more of my time and attention than it used to." Middlebrooks owns an embroidery and screen printing business in addition to being a flight attendant

"…I am well satisfied with the progress that has been made in Mansfield in the past two years and hope the city will continue to prosper," Middlebrooks wrote. "I appreciate the support that the citizens of Mansfield have shown to me while I was serving in the position of mayor."

Spending criticism

Council members and residents first brought up concerns about spending and improper reimbursements last spring. One of the biggest issues was the fact the mayor’s three-months-past-due utility bill was initially paid with city funds as a way to make up for wages Middlebrooks said she lost while remaining in Mansfield in April 2013 to help the city recover from a tornado.

The council discussed reimbursing the mayor, but never made a final decision. Former councilman Larry Cummins told the city clerk to reimburse Middlebrooks’ bills, but other council members felt the move was unethical and criticized Middlebrooks for not bringing up the issue at the time. Middlebrooks paid back the $1,046.20, but Council Member Lisa Dunn said the repayments to the city were only made after Dunn discovered and brought up the initial payments.

Other issues included expenses on the city’s debit card, which Middlebrooks used to use. She once paid a personal cellphone bill with the city’s debit card, but said it was a mistake because her personal card looked similar. She showed The News that she paid back the city in cash, but residents questioned whether the cash actually came from the mayor.

Dunn said Middlebrooks asked for more reimbursement for a city-related trip, but put down 780 miles of driving, while Dunn said Google Maps showed only 666 miles.

Middlebrooks admitted to making rookie mistakes on multiple occasions and said she had and was willing to repay any monetary mistakes.

However, Councilman Marty Smallwood and several residents asked the mayor to resign in November. At the time, she said she would not resign.

Several other residents also said they supported the mayor, and couple of council meetings got quite heated.

Concerns continued to be brought up over the past few months. Residents and council members took issue with the mayor putting in an insurance claim of $2,706 in lost wages dating back to flights she missed after the tornado. According to city documents, Middlebrooks said she missed three flights totaling 10 working days between April 24 and May 9.

In recent weeks, Whitney Denmark, one of the mayor’s most vocal critics, had written a letter to the city requesting financial audits and a full investigation into the mayor’s time in office. Denmark and fellow resident Vicki Cowan also said they went to District Attorney Layla Zon requesting an investigation. Zon did not immediately respond to a Friday email asking if any investigation was planned and how the resignation affected the situation.

Citizens reactions

After Thursday’s meeting, Denmark she was excited the mayor resigned, though she said still felt Middlebrooks took advantage of the town and needed to be prosecuted.

Cowan said she didn’t believe that Middlebrooks’ mistakes were rookie mistakes.

"I didn’t have a vendetta against Estona; I just wanted what was right and the best thing to do, and we just saw so many inconsistencies and this was the right thing to do," Cowan said.

 Council members’ reactions

The council did not address the resignation during Thursday’s work session, but The News sent out emails to all council members Friday morning asking about the resignation and what they hoped would happen moving forward.

"My hope is that Estona’s resignation will close this matter for good," first-year Councilman Matt Clark said. "I have watched with great embarrassment as these events have unfolded over the last few months. When these kinds of things happen in a small town like Mansfield, we become the butt of far too many jokes. I would very much like to avoid that in the future."

Smallwood said he hoped the city would now be able to focus on other matters.

"I am hopeful that the city council will now be able to focus on the city’s business such as repairs to the sewer plant, revamping the ordinances, the 2014 budget, and revitalizing the downtown area," Smallwood said.

The city has its regularly scheduled council meeting Monday at 7 p.m. at the Mansfield Community Center, right next to City Hall.

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