Midtown Raleigh News

Raleigh seeks to collect debt for 2009 Jackson tribute

Nearly three years after a sparsely attended memorial for Michael Jackson was held at the Raleigh Convention Center, organizers still owe the city $11,395.

Bruce Lightner, a community activist and owner of a Southeast Raleigh funeral home, hosted a public gathering for the screening of Jackson’s funeral celebration and rented out the convention center expecting a big turnout.

But after the funeral was moved to mid-week, only a few hundred attended and paid the $5 admission Lightner had hoped would cover his expenses. The bill from the event was $24,500.

The city has taken legal action to collect the remainder of the tab, prompting an angry response from Lightner, who says he thought Raleigh officials had long ago agreed to forgive the debt.

Last month, the city filed a complaint in Wake County district court asking a judge to hold Lightner responsible.

“I would hope that you would want to avoid the public embarrassment of taking the son of Raleigh’s only African American Mayor to court,” Lightner wrote in a Feb. 24 letter to City Attorney Tom McCormick.

“But if this does not bother you ... then so be it.”

In an interview Monday, Lightner said his attorney this week plans to meet with McCormick’s office to “make an offer to resolve it and get the money paid.” Lightner declined further comment.

Payment plan

Along with speakers and a video tribute, the Raleigh event featured live performances by Timika Shields, Stanley Baird Trio and the Martin Luther King Jr. All Children’s Choir. After the local program concluded, the convention center’s video screens tuned into a live feed of the memorial service from Los Angeles.

Within months of the screening, the city set up a payment plan with Lightner. The plan specified that if payments were not made on a regular basis, the entire bill would become due.

The agreement had a successful start. Lightner made a pair of initial $2,000 payments and Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting and a well-known community benefactor, contributed an additional $5,000.

At that point, Lightner began making monthly payments of $50 to $60 while he worked to come up with a way to tackle the total amount, according to city documents. Lightner made five payments totaling $300 before the payments ended.

In his letter last month to the city attorney, Lightner says it was his understanding that former Mayor Charles Meeker had agreed to ask the City Council to forgive the remainder of the debt. “I thought that this matter was taken to Council long ago,” Lightner wrote.

Meeker said he did not make any such arrangement. Meeker recalled having a brief conversation about the issue in which he told city administrators to treat Lightner the same as any resident with an unpaid bill.

‘It just didn’t pan out’

Lightner had worked with assistant city manager Lawrence Wray to set up the payment plan. Wray, who retired in 2010, had close relationships with Southeast Raleigh leaders and residents. Among other roles, he helped promote the popular African American Cultural Festival.

In an interview, Wray said he would try to raise $3,000 to $4,000 in the next two months to help Lightner resume making payments.

“Bruce has been a real support in the community,” Wray said. “He was trying to help folks celebrate black culture.”

A check written at the time of the event from the Raleigh-Wake Martin Luther King Celebration Committee, of which Lightner is a co-chairman, bounced when the city tried to cash it, said Perry James, Raleigh’s chief financial officer. That checking account has since been closed.

The King committee organizes events each January, around the time of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, as well as annual civil rights bus trips to places around the South where major events of the civil rights movement occurred.

The city runs the convention center, which opened in 2008 and was built with money from local restaurant and hotel sales taxes.

Lightner was trying to do a good thing for the community, Wray said.

“It just didn’t pan out. They changed the date on him as to when the funeral was going to be. It’s an unfortunate situation, but that’s the way it is.”