Council takes heat over mayor’s late bills

Aug. 10, 2013 @ 03:00 PM

City Council members say their constituents have been sounding off to them about the financial troubles involving Mayor Bernita Sims.
After the High Point Enterprise reported Tuesday that the mayor was delinquent on $538.78 worth of city utility bills from last year, residents didn’t hesitate to give their representatives an earful.
Councilman Jim Davis said he was “flooded all day long with calls and emails” after the article came out.
“People are mad. They’re upset. She’s our highest elected official in High Point, and they thought, I guess, the excuses she used about not knowing where to pay the bill was somewhat on the childish side. Being a policymaker, she knows very well how that works,” said Councilman Jim Davis.
One question on the minds of some residents has been whether the council has the authority to intervene in the case.
There is no way to remove an elected official from office in North Carolina unless they are convicted of a felony. High Point has no provision that would allow a recall vote for any council member. Council can vote to censure a colleague, but the action — a type of official reprimand — is essentially symbolic. Council members are required by law to go through ethics training, but there is no sanction associated with any ethical violation, short of breaking any laws.
“I’ve heard a lot of people out there asking if we can remove her from her position. A lot of people don’t understand the legal ability we as council have is limited, as far as what we can do,” Councilman Jason Ewing said.
Sims was delinquent on payments for city power, water and sewer service at her former residence from August to December 2012. She paid the city the balance on Tuesday, the day after the Enterprise first reported the delinquencies.
In an unrelated matter, Sims remains under investigation by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation in connection with her handling of the estate of a family member in Maryland. SBI agents have looked into an allegation that Sims passed a worthless $7,000 check to one of the estate’s heirs, and recently expanded the investigation to look into possible misuse and misappropriation of funds from the estate.
Prosecutors with the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office have not yet determined whether to file charges.
Sims has not commented on the SBI investigation, but has said the delinquencies were an oversight resulting from confusion about whether to pay the city or another agency, since the matter had been referred to a state collection program.
City emails show that city officials had been trying to get her to pay as far back as January of this year, about two weeks after the last of four bills came due. Sims moved to another residence in December 2012 and has not attempted to open another city utility account in her name.
“I think what people are asking for is just an explanation that is plausible and understandable. It’s not something I can explain away nor do I think any other member of council can. The ball is strictly in (Sims’) court,” said Councilwoman Becky Smothers. “It’s unfortunate. I think it’s cast a shadow when we don’t need that, and she doesn’t need it either. But she’s the only one that can do anything about it.”
Councilman Jay Wagner said he heard about the matter repeatedly at National Night Out events on Tuesday.
“Everywhere I went, it was kind of the first thing out of people’s mouths,” Wagner said. “My feeling on it is, you’ve got to pay your bills. I think, as public officials, we’ve got to do what everybody else has to do, at a minimum. I get the feeling that there’s been kind of a loss of faith there, that if (Sims) can’t seem to handle her own financial business, people don’t have faith she can do it for the city.”
Ewing said he’s concerned the image of the city as a whole is taking a hit and raised questions about whether Sims received preferential treatment with her delinquencies, which city officials deny. 
“It appears, based on what it looks like, that we might have delayed some of the process longer than we would for most any citizen,” he said. “I think that one of biggest things is that, everyone needs to be treated the same, whether it’s a citizen that lives in a $50,000 house or a council member, city staff, unemployed — whatever it is.”