Utility customers express outrage over billing woes
By Jon Hawley
Thursday, May 18, 2017
Elizabeth City residents outraged over the city’s continuing utility billing problems expressed their anger directly to city officials Wednesday during a rare town hall at Knobbs Creek Recreation Center.
Some of those who spoke during the two-hour forum attended by Mayor Joe Peel and the eight members of City Council demanded the firing of City Manager Rich Olson and the ouster of city councilors.
Applause filled the recreation center's gymnasium as speakers Paul Riggs and Sarah Ownley demanded Olson resign or be fired after months of the city being unable to bill utility customers properly. The problems stem from an attempted software conversion that the city has since ended. Despite a return to its former software, the city still faces the problem of sending out residents' backlogged bills and helping them afford two or more utility bills in a month.
Ownley, who expressed public criticism of Olson during a council meeting last month, criticized the city manager’s handling of the billing problems. She also questioned why council had hired Olson over a decade ago, noting what she claimed was an employment history in other cities that included being fired or forced to resign from his job.
“He's not capable of running this city,” Ownley said.
Ownley also questioned why Olson hadn't been fired but another city employee had.
“Sarah Blanchard was fired for that same thing,” Ownley said, drawing applause from the audience.
Blanchard was the city's finance officer, and project manager for the software conversion, but Olson fired her April 6 because, according to Olson, she provided him either false or misleading information about the extent of the problems with the software conversion.
Ownley also accused Olson of “almost being indicted” by the State Bureau of Investigation.
In an interview after Wednesday’s town hall, Olson said Ownley’s allegation was false. However, he said that, while city manager of Greenacres, Fla., he and other city officials went before various agencies while resolving a labor dispute with the Police Benevolent Association. Olson said the matter involved confidential personnel matters, but also said the city prevailed at every step of the dispute.
Ownley also accused Peel and Councilor Tony Stimatz of holding a “backdoor meeting” with the city's data processing supervisor, Ellen Cameron, about the software problems. Ownley also claimed that Cameron, not Blanchard, was facing being fired.
Stimatz rejected the accusation he acted secretly. He said Cameron came to him about the software problems and, based on the specifics she provided, he went to Peel and then they both went to Olson a few days before Blanchard was fired. Stimatz said Olson was “stunned” about the problems when he heard them.
The only councilor to defend Olson Wednesday night, Stimatz said the city manager had to rely on the information his employees provided him. That included Blanchard, who Stimatz noted was an “award-winning” finance officer.
“Why wouldn't you trust her?” Stimatz said.
Asked Thursday why Cameron didn't bring her concerns directly to him, Olson said it was a personnel matter and declined comment.
Riggs demanded Olson step down and the city council name Assistant City Manager Angela Cole as interim city manager while a new permanent manager is found. He called Olson a “liar” and said in a recent council meeting that Olson misled the public about what the city has spent related to the software conversion. He alluded to a $7,200 payment the city made to an outside consultant for troubleshooting the software problems.
Olson said Thursday he's never lied about what the city has paid so far during the attempted conversion from Logics software to Edmunds software. He also noted that Edmunds has billed the city nearly $66,000 for its services but the city hasn't agreed to pay the bill.
Olson also has not concealed that the city hired an outside consultant. He reported the hiring of David Boling, a former information technology director for Rowan County, in his weekly update to city council last November.
Though Olson took most of the fire Wednesday night, city councilors weren't spared. Several speakers warned that councilors risk being voted out of office if they don’t fix the billing problems and, some added, fire Olson.
One citizen who spoke said he had no quarrel with Olson, instead calling for Councilors Michael Brooks and Johnnie Walton to leave office.
Ron Lowe thanked Olson and a customer service staffer — he said he couldn't recall her exact name — for helping him resolve the problems with his bill.
However, he continued that he's dissatisfied with how Brooks and Walton have conducted themselves in past council meetings. Though not elaborating, he said “I think you two gentlemen are doing more harm than good,” and he said he wished voters had the ability to recall them from office.
Lowe also said he believes Brooks spends too much time talking about himself during council meetings, accusing him of being overly concerned with his “personal ego.”
Rejecting Lowe’s assessment, Brooks said that as a councilor for 10 years and a civic activist, he has earned the right to talk about his record. He also said he still has strong support from his constituents.
“If you come up here and try to bash me personally, ... I'm going to give you a break this time,” Brooks told Lowe. “Come to council and try that if you want, I guarantee I'll make you feel smaller than an ant.”
Later in the meeting, after Lowe had sat down, Brooks again tried to criticize him but was shouted down by the crowd, who yelled comments like “move on” and “grow up.”
Other councilors made limited comment at Wednesday’s town hall, though Councilor Johnnie Walton called for an independent audit of the city's billing practices and procedures to restore public trust.
Asked Thursday about citizens' frustrations with the months of billing problems, Olson said the city is working to fix them.
The steps Olson has previously outlined to fix the billing problems include: sending out March and April bills to customers this month; sending out notices to customers affected by the city's inability to draft accounts for automatic bill payments; and offering customer service plans to allow customers to repay large or backlogged bills.
Councilors have also asked for softer language to be included in those repayment plan agreements. Councilors have pointed out that the way the agreements are typically worded, it’s implied that late payments are the customer’s fault. That is not the case with the current billing problems, city officials have said.
Additionally, the city continues to waive late fees for unpaid bills.
Asked Thursday about citizens' calls to fire Olson, Peel said he still strongly supported Olson remaining city manager. He said the billing problems are "terrible" and a "mess," and said Olson could have been more attentive to the problems. However, he said that administrators of large organizations — and Peel, a retired school superintendent, included himself in that category — have to rely on their employees for information. Once Olson learned of the problems, Peel said, the manager has been "working night and day" to fix them, he said.
Peel also argued that Olson has overall benefited the city greatly over his years as manager, bringing in millions of dollars in grants and promoting economic development.
Peel also said Olson "is one of the most highly respected city managers in the state" and he considers Olson a person of great integrity and honesty.