The state auditor found that the town of Hertford made several questionable financial decisions, under the guidance of its former Mayor Pro Tem Quentin Jackson.
In a report released this week, State Auditor Beth Wood’s office says the Town Council awarded a contract for a street light fixture project to the highest bidder in 2019, resulting in overpayment by as much as $25,749. Hertford received 12 bids from five vendors on the project that called for 400 new LED lights downtown. Despite a low bid of $61,786 – and advice from the town attorney that the council had the responsibility to accept “the lowest responsible, responsive bid” – the council selected the highest bidder for the project on April 8, 2019.
Auditors discovered that emails from the town manager revealed that town officials sought “ways to avoid the informal bid process and award the contract directly to the acting Mayor Pro Tem’s preferred vendor.”
In fact, council minutes from its March 18, 2019, meeting showed Jackson said his preferred vendor would “get the business.”
Examiners uncovered much more possible malfeasance by the former power structure of the town, including $11,671 in questionable expenses between January 2018 and June 2020 while Jackson was in office. This includes improper use of his credit card ($6,113), violation of the town’s travel policy ($4,845), the potential misuse of the town’s vehicle ($1,721), and receiving a benefit reserved for full-time employees ($1,000).
Wood’s team found that the expenses resulted from a lack of oversight from the Town Council and manager. Auditors found that the town manager didn’t require employees to provide receipts or documentation that expenses supported valid purposes for the benefit of the town. Out-of-town trips were also not preapproved before the expenses occurred.
Town Manager Pamela Hurdle told auditors the town didn’t “have a tracking method [for vehicle use]. When vehicles are being used for conferences and school or regular town business, no method of tracking is done or had been needed.”
In addition, Jackson remained on the council after pleading guilty to simple assault in December 2019 that resulted from him attacking another member of the council during a 2018 meeting. The town paid $3,000 of Jackson’s legal fees relating to the assault charge.
Although the town charter states that a mayor or council member convicted of a crime shall immediately forfeit their office, Jackson didn’t vacate his post. The report notes that the town’s policy is counter to the state constitution, which requires a felony conviction for an elected or appointed official to be booted from office.
In its response to the audit, current Mayor Earnell Brown tried to distance the current leadership of Hertford from those in office during the period examined by Wood’s staff, although Jackson still sits on the council.
Brown said the majority of the current council disagrees with the decision to award the lighting contract to the highest bidder, and that the town has put into place policies to “stop the bleeding” regarding unauthorized expenses.
“It is the Current Town Council’s intention to pursue recovery of the costs incurred by the Former Mayor Pro Tem and will discuss options for collection with the Town’s Attorney in the coming days,” Brown wrote.
He wrote that “the town was and still is shocked” by Jackson’s assault on a fellow council member, calling it “the very antithesis of democracy.”
Brown said the council is looking at revising its charter to comply with the state Constitution, however.