Smithfield Herald

Councilman attacks downtown agency

DSDC director Chris Johnson says the dustup with Councilman Charles Williams was a misunderstanding.
DSDC director Chris Johnson says the dustup with Councilman Charles Williams was a misunderstanding.

Town Councilman Charles Williams is calling for a probe of Downtown Smithfield Development Corp. spending after alleging the agency misled the council.

At last week’s Town Council meeting, Williams made a motion to sever town ties with Chris Johnson, head of the downtown group, and with Wallace Green, head of the Raleigh Area Development Authority.

Johnson said Williams’ motion was based on a misunderstanding.

“I know about every dime we spent,” he said.

Williams’ broadside against the downtown group began when he confused two projects that Johnson helped with. One was an application for a $50,000 grant to study infrastructure needs in East Smithfield, which Williams represents. Johnson helped the Raleigh Area Development Authority with that application, which has since won approval.

Separately, Johnson helped the town apply for federally-subsidized, low-interest loans for downtown business development. The town missed out on those loans.

In conflating the two applications, Williams accused Johnson and Green of misleading the town, telling East Smithfield residents they were working on their behalf while actually seeking dollars for downtown development.

Both applications went before the Town Council – the East Smithfield one in November and the downtown loan application in February. In both cases, the council, including Williams, voted to move forward with the application

Williams knew Johnson and Green had met with East Smithfield residents to talk about the federal grant application. But when he combed through past Town Council minutes, he found only the downtown application and accused Johnson of pulling a bait-and-switch with residents.

“I don’t have a problem with having meetings, but when you misinform the citizens … I have a problem with that,” Williams said.

Town Manager Paul Sabiston told Williams he was confusing the two applications. “We’re talking two different loans here – one for downtown and another for the surrounding community,” Sabiston said.

But Williams was still not satisfied. He said Johnson hadn’t been clear about where all of the money was going, and he demanded to see records of the downtown group’s spending over the past five years.

Johnson agreed to provide the records. “I’ll have it to you by the end of this week,” he said.

Williams has often said the town neglects East Smithfield, and he repeated his claim again Tuesday. A $50,000 grant to study infrastructure isn’t what the community needs, he argued.

He also accused Green of being out of touch with residents, noting that he’s often out of town when people want his help. (Green works mainly out of RADA’s office in Raleigh.)

“Everybody’s talking about how much money they’re getting, but nothing’s being done for the community,” Williams said.

After a few heated exchanges, the longtime councilman made a motion to sever town ties with Johnson and Green. But no one on the council seconded the motion, so it died without a vote.

Councilman Andy Moore said he supports Johnson’s work but noted that someone should have made more of an effort to inform Williams and include him in the process.

“Communication may not be what it needs to be, and we can certainly take that for the future as a lesson to be learned,” Moore said. “Since it’s in his community, I think it’s only fair.”