ELKHART — An external audit of the Elkhart Parks & Recreation Department, proposed by Mayor Tim Neese after the parks superintendent was charged with embezzlement from his previous job, has been turned down by the City Council.
Parks superintendent Randall Norton was charged in late July with embezzling about $20,000 from his previous employer, Three Rivers Area Mentoring in Michigan. He began his job in Elkhart in December.
It was also revealed that Norton continued working for Snider Recreation while being superintendent, without the knowledge of the mayor. Norton’s biography on the company’s website said his sales territory included Elkhart County. That biography has since been taken down, and the company on Tuesday did not say whether he was still employed there.
When Neese learned of the charges and the sales job, he called for an external audit of the Parks Department and asked the Controller’s Office to find out if the city had made any purchases from Snider Recreation since Norton became employed by the city. The search found no such sales, he said.
On Tuesday, at the first Park Board meeting since the allegations against Norton became public, Park Board member Anthony Coleman said he believes Norton should resign.
“I need to put on the record that I am asking for his resignation or his immediate suspension without pay until this thing is resolved,” Coleman said.
Norton was at the meeting and briefly took part in giving a report on department activities. That report was accepted by the board, but Coleman voted against.
“I will oppose everything that Randy has anything to do with until this situation is addressed,” Coleman said.
Norton did not respond during the meeting and declined to comment afterward.
As for the audit, only two members of the City Council voted to approve the funding of up to $10,000 during that meeting Monday night.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people, and I’m not convinced that we need to spend this money,” Councilman Dwight Fish, D-4, said to start a 30-minute discussion on the issue.
He and other opponents of the audit believed that without evidence or allegations of local misconduct, there is no reason to let out-of-state allegations cost the city $10,000, as requested by Neese, a Republican.
David Henke, R-3, suggested tabling the audit until the case in Michigan is resolved. That idea gained some traction, with several members openly contemplating the tabling option.
But Brent Curry, D-5, argued it was time to do something and not just wait for Michigan.
“We ought to go ahead and take some action on this tonight. I think that’s what the public is looking for us to do as a council,” he said. “I think we should vote it up or vote it down.
Mary Olson, R-at large, said that while tabling could be an option, voters expect transparency. She also said a new state law places liability with the council members personally if they do not approve an audit and it is discovered at a later point that park funds have been mismanaged. Council President Brian Dickerson, R-at large, agreed with that interpretation.
A motion to table failed 3-6, with Henke, Kurpgeweit and Richard Shively, R-1, voting for.
There was some discussion on whether the audit would cost the $10,000, the maximum price allowed by the ordinance. But that didn’t sway Brian Thomas, R-2, who announced at the previous meeting that he could not be convinced to vote for an audit.
“I don’t care if it even goes to $10,000, and I don’t care if it goes to 99 cents,” he said.
Thomas argued that if there were enough suspicion to demand an audit, there should be enough suspicion that Neese would have suspended Norton as well. That hasn’t happened, and Neese has declined Norton’s offer to resign.
Pam Kurpgeweit, R-6, said approving the audit would create a bad precedent.
“If we start doing this auditing on something that may be there, and we’ve had no allegations from anybody here in Elkhart, then does that mean every time somebody gets upset and they bring in a comment or a thought, then we should audit that person, that department?” she said.
Dickerson asked controller Rita Huffman if she believes it is appropriate to audit the Parks Department.
“I’m not aware of anything at this point that would bring to my attention something that I feel that we needed to audit,” she said.
The proposed audit was voted down in a 7-2 vote, with Olson and Dickerson voting in favor of it.
According to the mayor’s communications director, Courtney Bearsch, Neese was expecting the council to pass his proposed ordinance, as he felt the $10,000 would be money well spent.
Neese’s chief of staff, Bradley Tracy, said the Mayor’s Office is reviewing all expenditures that have been made by the Parks Department during Norton’s tenure.
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