ELKHART — Some Elkhart residents said they suspect race has a role in how the mayor and City Council are handling recent out-of-state embezzlement charges against parks superintendent Randall Norton.
But the mayor and city council members said race does not play a role.
Norton offered his resignation to Mayor Tim Neese last week, but the mayor refused. Neese decided pursue an external audit of the parks department to ensure there has been no mismanagement since Norton began his job in December.
It was also revealed last week that Norton, without the knowledge of the mayor, has been working as a sales representative for Snider Recreation, which sells parks equipment. His biography on the company website states that his sales territory includes Elkhart County. His employment was confirmed by a company official.
Neese said in an interview on July 30 that an audit would begin that same week. However, the cost of the audit, which could run up to $10,000, must first be approved by City Council. The council heard the proposed ordinance on first reading on Monday. It is expected to vote on the measure at the Aug. 19 meeting.
At least one council member will be voting against the measure, as Brian Thomas, R-2, stated that an audit of the parks department is “a total waste of money.”
“I’m totally against it, so if you’re trying to call me and try to convince me to vote for it, don’t bother,” he said.
Thomas appeared to break City Council protocol in bringing up the issue during the Other New Business portion of the meeting when the audit was already on the agenda, but protocol was not enforced.
“I can sneak it in,” he said.
Elkhart resident Nekeisha Alayna Alexis was the first of two members of the public to speak on the issue during Privilege of the Floor. She said the council reacted much more harshly when allegations of financial mismanagement were made in relations to the Tolson Center in 2018.
“I want to make very clear up front that my interest at this particular juncture is not regarding (Norton’s) innocence or his guilt — that is beside the point I am making tonight,” said Alexis. “My interest is, in a word, about precedent.”
She said members of the council set several precedents in the handling of the Tolson Center when there were “accusations and rumor mills” about financial mismanagement in 2018. Then parks superintendent, Clyde Riley, who is black, resigned in May 2018.
“They spoke in negative, near slanderous ways about their own city employees. They raised alarm before the results of an actual, official audit was carried out. They stripped one of their own departments of half of its funding before clear evidence of wrongdoing,” she said.
According to Alexis, the community is still recovering from those precedents, which led to the closure of the youth and community center that is located in a part of the city that has a large non-white population.
This time, she said, the council has been silent or talked about innocence until someone accused is proven guilty.
“I would like to think that it’s wisdom, but I’m not so sure,” said Alexis.
To Councilman Thomas she said that if his constituents call him, he should listen to reasonable arguments rather than announce ahead of time that his mind cannot be changed.
At the conclusion of Alexis’ remarks, Council President Dickerson, R-at large, said he probably made more of an exception to the council rules than he should have, by allowing Alexis to speak on the issue of the audit.
Ken Hunt, who led the Gym Rats basketball program at the Tolson Center from January through June, sponsored by the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, did not get the same exception and was cut off when it became clear he was speaking about Norton.
Hunt accused the council of institutional and systematic racism.
“Institutional racism is a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions,” he said, reading the council a definition of those terms.
He said the mayor has given a suspension with pay to any city employee accused of anything in the past.
“We’re talking about precedent in Elkhart. You suspended the chief (of police, Ed Windbigler), you suspended Clyde (Riley),” said Hunt. “And you suspended them with pay until the investigation was over.”
Riley was not suspended, according to the Mayor’s Office. Neese suspended then Chief of Police Ed Windbigler in November 2018, as a consequence of Windbigler’s handling of officers beating a handcuffed suspect. Neese later asked Windbigler to resign.
Hunt asked the mayor and council to consider how the city feels as the case involving Norton moves forward.
Neese said after the meeting that the accusation of institutional racism is unfounded on his part.
“People make accusations all the time,” he said.
Neese said he has no reason to think an audit will find any wrongdoing, but he thinks it would be wise to get that confirmed.
Dickerson said he believes all people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that he expects to meet with Norton this week.
“I don’t believe there is a basis of a race discussion there,” he said.
He said the investigation of the parks department after the accusations of financial mismanagement last year was due to a specific allegation against the department, rather than an allegation about wrongdoing that happened out of state and before Norton was employed by the city.
“Whereas, before we had an employee of the City of Elkhart who came openly in a council meeting and accused the Tolson Youth and Community Center of fraud, in this case we have another community who is making that accusation,” Dickerson said.
He said he is in favor of auditing the parks department.
As for Norton’s employment with Snider Recreation, Dickerson said it is not a problem that a city employee works a part-time job, but that the City Council will have questions for Norton about his employment as a parks equipment sales representative.
He said Norton would have been required to notify the city if he had been engaged in sales that would have created a conflict of interest.
The Elkhart Truth found through a public records request that the City of Elkhart has never made a purchase from Snider Recreation.
Norton did not respond to interview requests Tuesday. Previous reporting in The Elkhart Truth erroneously stated that Norton began his job as parks superintendent in January. He has been a city employee since December.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus
Elkhart parks superintendent Randall Norton has been charged with embezzlement of about $20,000 from his previous employer, Three Rivers Area Mentoring in Michigan, where he was executive director before getting his current job.