Mayor fires back at critics
High Point Mayor Bernita Sims on Monday answered critics calling for her resignation, arguing that she’s done nothing that would warrant leaving office before the end of her term.
Four City Council members on Friday called for Sims to step down because of issues surrounding her personal financial affairs. Sims responded in an interview Monday that the issues are just that — personal matters that have nothing to do with her public duties.
“I think the thing to judge me on is my work. I think I’ve done a significant amount of work in the community as a whole,” she said. “What am I resigning for? If you’re telling me I have some personal issues, everybody does. Am I not doing my job? Am I not handling the affairs of the mayor’s office the way that they should be handled?”
Council members Jim Davis, Jason Ewing, Judy Mendenhall and Becky Smothers maintain that a criminal investigation into Sims’ handling of a family member’s estate, as well as unpaid state income taxes and a city utility-bill delinquency that went unpaid for several months have served to undermine public confidence in the city’s leadership and call into question the credibility of the council as a whole.
Council members said Sims hasn’t done enough to acknowledge and explain any of these issues.
Sims on Monday didn’t offer anything new in the way of an explanation for the financial matters, but defended her handling of them with her colleagues.
“I have reached out from the very beginning to each one of these council members,” she said. “If any of them wanted to talk to me about any of this, I’ve been willing to have that conversation.”
Smothers said she didn’t think Sims had done enough to address the problems, which first surfaced in May.
“If it’s so personal, why would we go to her? Isn’t it her place to come to us individually?” Smothers said.
She also reiterated her view that Sims’ statements to council members during a closed session on Sept. 16 had damaged the council’s ability to effectively govern.
“I felt her statements were accusatory and, I thought, way off-base,” said Smothers.
Davis said it’s been Sims’ handling of her issues that have been the biggest cause for concern.
“I can say she’s never spoken to me about these issues, nor has she addressed us as a council,” he said. “I never reached out to her to ask her about them. Maybe I should have earlier, but they were personal and I was hoping she would step up and take ownership of them. If she had said, ‘I’m having problems, but I’m working them out. I’m going to keep you informed,’ I think people would have given her the benefit of the doubt, because people are compassionate about that kind of thing. But people see it more as defiance, as someone in authority who’s not taking responsibility.”
Sims said the negative attention her financial problems have brought have been the result of media coverage.
“Everybody says, ‘Well it puts the city in a bad light. We’ve got all these things going on.’ But I’m not writing the stories. I’m not the one reporting the story,” she said. “If there were malfeasance with the city, if I were in there taking insider information and using it for my own benefit and gaining from that, then I can see them saying I’m a bad mayor. But I don’t do that.”
The Enterprise on Monday asked Sims about each financial case that’s garnered attention.
One issue Sims has faced has been a North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation inquiry in connection with her role as the executor of an estate of a family member in Maryland. SBI agents looked into an allegation that Sims passed a worthless $7,000 check as part of the estate’s settlement to one of its heirs, and later expanded their investigation to look into possible misuse and misappropriation of funds from the estate.
The investigation is ongoing and prosecutors with the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office have not determined whether to file charges.
Sims said she eventually paid the estate heir, Annie Ponce of High Point, the full $7,000. The payment was made after the Enterprise reported the SBI investigation in May — six months after the initial check was written. Sims said the timing of the payment had nothing to do with revelations about the bad-check allegation.
Ponce claims her share of the estate is more than $47,000.
“The issue that was before me was that check, and its been paid,” said Sims. “So whether or not what is owed to (Ponce), what is owed to anybody — I’m not having that discussion.”
She also declined to discuss her past delinquency on $538.78 worth of city utility bills at her former residence from August to December 2012.
She paid the balance the day after the Enterprise reported the delinquencies last month, explaining that they 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.
Records showed that city officials had been trying to persuade her to pay for at least seven months.
“It’s old news. It was a bill I owed and resolved it. I’m not going to get into the nuances and the weeds of it,” she said.
Sims likewise declined to shed any light on state income taxes she owes going back a decade.
The North Carolina Department of Revenue last month served the city with a garnishment notice for $5,578.93 that Sims owed in overdue state income taxes, penalties and interest from 2003, 2007, 2008 and 2009. The city has begun withholding a portion of her salary as mayor to comply with the state order.