EC workers strike/sit-in

Elizabeth City City Manager Montre Freeman (left) speaks with city Public Utilities employees outside City Hall on June 29. Workers were protesting City Council’s decision not to approve a 10-cent property tax increase the city manager said would fully fund a 4% pay raise for all city workers.

Elizabeth City City Council voted this week to place City Manager Montre Freeman on administrative leave with pay, but so far they’ve said nothing about the reasons why.

Mayor Pro Tem Johnnie Walton came the closest, confirming on the record Friday that Freeman is on suspension because he’s being investigated. But Walton declined to provide the reasons for the probe, referring a Daily Advance reporter to the city’s personnel attorney who earlier in the week declined to confirm an investigation is taking place.

Despite being unwilling to say why Freeman is being investigated, Walton called on city officials to provide more information about why it’s underway, saying city residents deserve to know what’s going on.

We agree with the mayor pro tem; we just wish he did too. If he did, he’d provide some public justification for the remarkable decision to suspend the city’s top appointed official only eight months into his tenure.

Walton, who appeared to offer support for Freeman, acknowledged the city manager has made some mistakes. Walton himself wasn’t happy with how Freeman handled the 8.5-cent tax rate increase in this year’s city budget, believing the city manager didn’t communicate clearly enough to city employees that councilors intended to raise taxes enough to award them at least a 4% raise. As a result, workers took to the streets for a short, two-day protest that appeared to embarrass councilors who had supported the raise.

A possible misstep also came out at the last council meeting when the husband of the city’s assistant city clerk accused Freeman of demoting his wife to another job — and then posting her position online before even informing her of her transfer.

If that indeed happened, and city councilors haven’t denied that it did, it certainly violates Human Resources 101 and seems like a pretty dumb mistake for someone being paid $140,000 a year. It doesn’t warrant suspension or investigation, however.

If Freeman is accused of something else more serious, councilors need to say so. They don’t have to detail everything that’s being investigated. But they certainly can say more than they have thus far.

There’s even precedent for doing so. Many years ago, another City Council released information about the reasons the city’s then-popular police chief was fired, relying on a clause in state law that permits the release of personnel-related information if it’s done to “protect the integrity of the governing body.” In other words, a governing board can release limited information about a personnel matter to defend itself against allegations that it’s acting arbitrarily or against the public interest.

If Walton is serious about eliminating confusion in the community about the suspension of a popular city manager, we would urge him to cite the “protect the integrity of the governing body” clause in state law and push for release of more information about why it’s happened.

— The Daily Advance