ELKHART — Elkhart parks superintendent Randall Norton offered his resignation to Mayor Tim Neese, R, twice on Tuesday, after Norton was charged with embezzlement from his previous employer on Monday.
Neese declined Norton’s offer, according to the mayor.
Norton was the executive director of Three Rivers Area Mentoring in Michigan before starting his job with the City of Elkhart in December 2018.
Three Rivers police said nearly $10,000 in personal expenses were paid out to Norton by Three Rivers Area Mentoring, and there was $11,000 in excess payroll.
But Neese believes the account he heard from Norton in a meeting Tuesday morning. According to the mayor, Norton claimed that he had gone from working 24 hours a week to 40 hours a week when the organization went from having four employees to having three. That led to more money being paid out to Norton, Neese said.
A board member would sign Norton’s check, understanding that Norton had worked extra hours, according to the mayor, who said he has not spoken with TRAM.
“I don’t know that the checks and balance procedure at this facility in Three Rivers is, probably, quite as strong as it should be,” said Neese.
Neese said the city had been in contact with TRAM during the hiring process. The city also did a criminal background check, but found no reason to be concerned when choosing Norton out of 160 applicants.
Norton has known about the allegations since April 2, said Neese, who was disappointed not to learn of the situation until after The Elkhart Truth made an interview request on Monday.
“He said he was concerned, that it was a surprise. He just didn’t (tell me),” said Neese.
Following the charge, Neese has decided to audit the Parks & Recreation Department as a safety measure.
“I think that’s just good public policy,” said Neese.
The audit will begin within the next few days and will be performed by the Chicago-based accounting firm Baker Tilly.
Neese visited the Parks & Recreation Department on Tuesday afternoon, briefing the staff and making them aware of his refusal of Norton’s resignation.
The mayor didn’t learn until Tuesday, again after an interview request from The Elkhart Truth, that Norton is currently working as a sales representative for Snider Recreation, an Ohio-based business that sells school and park recreation equipment.
The company’s website says Norton started the job in the fall of 2017. A Snider Recreation official confirmed Tuesday that Norton continues to work as a sales representative.
Norton’s profile on the Snider Recreation website list his sales area as northern Indiana and western Michigan. Elkhart County is specifically listed as part of his sales territory.
Neese, however, said he is not sure if Norton is still involved with the company.
“There have been no purchases, no contacts, with Snider Recreation by the city,” Neese said.
Because of Norton’s “previous or current involvement” with Snider Recreation, the mayor said, the city will not be working with the company while Norton works for the city. After checking with the Controller’s Office Tuesday, Neese said the city has not made purchases from the business during Norton’s tenure.
Neese said that Norton working a second job at Snider Recreation is a “non-issue.”
City Councilwoman Pam Kurpgeweit, R-6, is the council liaison to the Park Board. She said she was not aware of Norton’s second job.
“As a councilperson, I was not involved in the actual hiring process of the parks superintendent,” Kurpgeweit said.
She is not concerned about the superintendent’s second job, either.
“If someone has another job outside of their current job, that is normally not considered illegal,” she said.
As for the embezzlement charge, Kurpgeweit emphasized that any person is innocent until proven guilty. If that should happen in this case, Neese would be the person to determine the city’s course of action, she said.
Norton was hired to replace previous parks superintendent, Clyde Riley, who resigned in May 2018 when questions about financial mismanagement led to an audit and temporary closure of the Tolson Center.
“It’s kind of a sad situation to see this,” Kurpgeweit said. “This took me by surprise.”
Norton has often been praised by members of the City Council for his ability make the parks department trustworthy and for his internal controls efforts, and Kurpgeweit said he has been nothing but professional.
“He was the one that put together probably the most stringent money handling policy of any of the departments,” she said.
At the June 3 Finance Committee and City Council meetings, Norton requested an ordinance change that would allow the parks department to hold more cash at events and seasonal facilities.
Specifically, the change allows $6,000 rather than $1,000 in cash at events and $3,250 rather than $2,250 at seasonal facilities. That was approved by the city council, after some discussion about financial management during the previous parks leadership.
“I appreciate that you have internal controls built into the process, that those have been improved upon,” said Councilman David Henke, R-3, at that time. “Because, when it comes down to the cash business, we’ve been through two investigations already.”
Councilman Brent Curry, D-5, said his one concern about the change was whether Norton would be ready to penalize variances from the regulations on handling of money. “Absolutely,” Norton said.
The ordinance passed 9-0.
Norton has not responded to interview requests through voice mail, text message or email.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter @ReadRasmus