Mansfield officials look to the future, but questions remain about former mayor

MANSFIELD — Town residents and officials began the process of clearing the air and moving forward Monday, four days after the mayor resigned under accusations of financial misdeeds.

Despite pledges of better days and more transparency ahead, however, some residents said they won’t be satisfied until the facts are known about former Mayor Estona Middlebrooks’ fiscal management and the appropriate action has been taken.

Mayor Pro-tem Jefferson Riley told about 25 town residents gathered for the council meeting at the Community Center that he believes in transparency and openness in government. He said the city would try to answer any questions residents might have, but his focus would be on the future.

“I don’t care what’s been done in the past,” he said. “I want this City Council, the city employees, and hopefully the people in this community to look forward. Let’s look toward having a great future for this community. If there are issues from the past that have to be dealt with, from our perspective, it’s been dealt with. We are looking forward.”

During the meeting, residents asked questions about a wide range of topics, including electricity rates, sewer plant repairs, current ordinances, and a town audit.

Resident Whitney Denmark, who was instrumental in bringing allegations against the former mayor to light, thanked the council for its help. However, she said, Middlebrooks’ resignation was not the end of the issue, despite the fact that some might be embarrassed by the negative attention to the town.

“Buckle down,” she said. “It’s not over yet. We’re not done until there is a prosecution and we find out everything …”

Resident Vicki Cowan, who worked with Denmark, received assurance that there will be a town audit, although Riley said it may be delayed about a month.

Council discussion of an insurance claim made it clear that all questions about the former mayor’s administration have not been answered. Council members Lisa Dunn and Marty Smallwood asked about a claim that had been filed for roof repairs to City Hall after a tornado touched down in Mansfield last April. Smallwood said it was clear that the town had accepted the $1,099 insurance payment, but no work was ever done to the roof.

Smallwood’s frustration with the situation was evident in his comments to City Clerk Jamie Ruark.

“I’m assuming you got directions from somebody else, Jamie,” Smallwood said.

“I did get directions,” she replied.

“I know you did, but I mean you can’t accept money from an insurance company, especially earmarked for some work, you know what I’m saying? You can’t do it. We accepted money for repairs and we didn’t do it.”

Ruark said an inspector for the insurance company had come out to examine the roof after the tornado and had said there were a few loose shingles. She said the money was deposited in the bank, but she was not involved in making decisions about roof repairs.

Riley reiterated his promise that the town would move forward.

“This council is going to do everything we can do to make sure those types of things don’t happen again,” he said.

Middlebrooks, who was elected unopposed in 2011 as part-time mayor, resigned Thursday night citing the demands of her job as a flight attendant and a home-based printing business.

Her resignation came after Denmark wrote a letter to Riley last month asking that he conduct an audit of the past two years while Middlebrooks was in office and investigate alleged misuse of funds by the mayor.

Denmark and Cowan also spoke with Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon late last month about their allegations.

Riley said he and the council members subsequently notified Middlebrooks that they would pursue an investigation or turn the matter over to a Superior Court judge, as required by town charter.

Middlebrooks came under scrutiny last year after it was learned that she had used the town’s debit card to pay her husband’s $228 Verizon Wireless cell phone bill. Middlebrooks had said it was a mistake and that she had reimbursed the town in cash by putting it in the petty cash drawer at City Hall. However, Cowan said there is no record that Middlebrooks actually repaid the funds.

In addition, Middlebrooks was paid $2,700 in February as part of insurance claims filed by the town for tornado damages.

Middlebrooks filed the claim for lost wages after she said she missed 10 days of work over three weeks as a flight attendant for Atlanta Southeast Airlines in the aftermath of the tornado.

At the same time, Middlebrooks continued to collect compensation from the town. Mansfield’s mayor is paid $100 per meeting, up to two meetings per month.

Council members questioned why Middlebrooks claimed lost wages for a time period spanning three weeks when most of the tornado damage was cleaned up in a week.

Middlebrooks also had problems developing a 2014 budget for the town. Mansfield’s charter requires that the mayor submit a proposed budget to the council not less than 60 days prior to the beginning of the fiscal year. City Councilman Matt Clark announced Thursday night that a final draft of the budget has been completed and will be available for citizen review at City Hall.