Opinion: Be there or be silent

The City Council’s first-ever forum on an annual Henderson audit is today at 5:30 p.m. in the Municipal Building on Beckford Drive, and if you care about this city, if you care about how your money is handled, if you care about a future in which Henderson thrives instead of withering, you need to be in the council chambers ready to ask questions and listen.

The Daily Dispatch admirably laid out the importance of attending the public forum, so we need not go into great detail on that count. It boils down to two things: You have to be there to be informed about the city, and you have to be there to show that the answers matter. To stay away is to tell the city management and elected officials that they can do whatever they want. Down that path lies the slow death of democracy. (If you can’t make it, at least listen on WIZS-1450 AM.)

But we don’t wish to dwell on the big picture right now. We’re not seers, so we can’t know whether this forum will be a watershed moment in Henderson’s history or just another boring gathering to talk about accounting, budgets, tax collection rates and other topics that could be packaged as cures for insomnia.

Instead, let’s focus on what you can do today to make this forum matter.

Council members Bernard Alston and Elissa Yount offered a bold vision of a public dissection of city finances after Alston, the finance committee chairman, proposed the forum at a meeting Feb. 17. Auditor Curtis Averette of accounting firm William Stark & Co. already has imperiled that vision by announcing last week that he won’t attend the forum.

“It was my understanding that the purpose of my attendance … was to respond specifically to written questions from the Council concerning the City’s audit,” Averette wrote in an e-mail to city Finance Director Traig Neal on Friday afternoon. “Since we have not received any questions concerning the June 30, 2004 audit from any of the Council members, I do not plan to attend the meeting on Monday.”

In fact, Yount presented a list of written questions at the Feb. 17 meeting of the Finance and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, and it was that list that led Alston to propose the public forum. The Dispatch ran Yount’s statement with those questions Sunday.

In addition, it was clear at the FAIR meeting, which Averette attended, that the purpose of the forum was to open the auditor, Neal and City Manager Eric Williams to questions from council members and the public, so Averette’s decision not to attend is disappointing. It has the feel of a legal defense, as if an attorney advised Stark not to have a staff member risk saying something in public that could open the firm to unwanted consequences.

We suspect the decision is unwise. Not only is it suspicious and detrimental to the public’s need to know, but Averette’s absence will allow city officials to deflect blame from themselves toward the auditor. We hope he reconsiders before 5:30.

All we know for sure is that Williams will make a PowerPoint presentation designed to explain the history that brought the city to this position. After that, anything goes. It’s not even clear whether Alston, Williams or Mayor Clem Seifert will lead the forum.

Whoever is there to answer questions, don’t let anyone insult your intelligence. Don’t accept statements to the effect that the audit is beyond your understanding, or that the city’s fund balance isn’t critically low, or that the $400,000 overrun at Embassy Square isn’t significant, or that the lack of a budget ordinance amendment for the transfer of that money from the general fund to the Embassy Square capital budget is just a paperwork oversight, or that all of our financial problems are the result of high unemployment or Harriet & Henderson Yarns’ liquidation or Gov. Mike Easley’s swiping of local funds or any other factor that existed long before the no-strings-attached fund balance lost two-thirds of its value between June 30, 2003, and June 30, 2004.

Demand answers to questions such as these:

* Why wasn’t there a budget amendment related to the transfer to Embassy Square? Who approved the move and under what authority?

* After the City Council amended the 2004 budget to avoid any use of the fund balance, a step Seifert touted a letter to the state’s Local Government Commission Jan. 30, 2004, how did the fund balance wind up falling from $1,332,014 on June 30, 2003, to a projected total of $1,295,021 and an actual, audited amount of $464,163 on June 30, 2004? Where did the money go?

* How much money will be left in the fund balance on June 30, 2005?

* What makes Henderson so different from other North Carolina cities of its size, which average a general fund balance of 35 percent of spending, while Henderson’s is barely above 3 percent?

* Who participated in the conference call to the Local Government Commission on Oct. 13? What was said? What records exist of the contents of that conversation?

* Why didn’t the council receive the audit before the end of January, especially considering the Nov. 17 date on the management letter from William Stark & Co. concerning the audit’s completion?

* What work occurred at Embassy Square between Nov. 17 and Jan. 28, and what money was spent?

* Why didn’t the city insist on a repayment of any Embassy Square Cultural Center spending as part of its agreement to hand over the land to the Embassy Square Foundation?

* Was City Attorney John Zollicoffer representing the city, the foundation or both in drafting agreements between the two and in the purchase and consolidation of the land?

* Did Zollicoffer & Long represent any of the sellers of Embassy Square property?

* Why did Zollicoffer’s legal fees for Embassy Square run over budget? Why is the city paying Zollicoffer for any work related to the cultural side of the downtown project?

* The biggest overrun in the Embassy Square budget is for planning and design. What happened?

* How much money has the foundation raised from private, nongovernmental sources?

* Given that Williams cites the city’s many capital projects as a major drain on the budget and fund balance, does the City Council intend to push ahead with the entirely publicly financed construction of a city hall and administration building downtown?

* Given that the fund balance problem has been known since the fall, what has been done to address the problem?

* Where do we go from here?

Remember, the city’s future starts at 5:30 today.